Totally Active Gear Tester Paul Barton is an experienced trail and fell runner and mountain biker but the Cape Wrath Ultra was a new level of challenge. He had three hilly ultras under his belt, two just under 50 kilometres and the 64 kilometre High Peak 40 but how would he fare covering 400 kilometres through the wilds of Scotland?
400 kilometres, over eight stages, through the stunning scenery of the west coast of Scotland and finishing at the UK’s most north-westerly point, the Cape Wrath Ultra has to be one of the ultimate trail running events.
The inaugural Cape Wrath Ultra was in many ways an unknown. 2016 would be the first year it ran; but, during the build-up, it already felt like a famous event, with an excited buzz amongst the ultra running community. An impressively international competitor list only added to the excitement. Organised by Shane Ohly and delivered by his team at Ourea Events, competitors could be confident they’d be in safe hands; Shane was responsible for bringing back The Dragons Back, the five day ultra traversing along the mountainous spine of Wales.
The opportunity to compete in the Cape Wrath Ultra was, for me, too good to miss. I was looking for a running challenge and was cultivating a burning desire to ‘do something crazy’. I’d enjoyed previous ultras, I fancied trying my first multi-day and I enjoy feeling remote. The west coast of Scotland was somewhere I knew little about and I heard the calling!
I had trained well for about four months. In hindsight, not a long time to build from my regular 10 km fell runs up to multiple ultra marathon distances, but it had gone well. The mantra I stuck to religiously was ‘How ever far I run, I must always feel good the next day’. This meant a steadily lengthening weekend run (from 20 km to about 40 km) with shorter runs or mountain bike fun rides during the week. To ensure feeling good after long runs, my pace was slow, my heart rate low and I made sure I ate and hydrated well on every outing. I had intended to push up to 50 km or more and do more back-to-back runs; but time ran out and my two week taper had crept up and done its usual trick of instilling doubts and trying to make me ill. In truth I was probably fitter than I’d ever been.
Race day would be an early but pleasant 10 a.m. start so we registered the day before. I was nervous standing in the queue. I worried about my kit, even though I’d checked and weighed it several times. I worried about how serious most people looked. I worried about the weather as my waterproof jacket was the weakest link amongst my kit and Fort William had welcomed us with a Scottish downpour! I’d travelled up with my mate Ian so we masked our nerves with some mindless waffle. Race organiser Shane and his right-hand-man Gary delivered a rousing introduction to the event after the kit check and we were able to ask some questions, mostly related to ticks. Ticks were another worry!
Day 1 – Fort William to Glenfinnan
37 km – 500m height gain
Day one started with a ferry trip across Loch Linnhe to the start, where a piper added to an electrifying atmosphere. Everyone was friendly, chatty with apprehension but surprisingly relaxed, I think we all just want to get started. This was an easy day, short and flat and the weather was un-Brittishly glorious. We all started too fast of course, although the first 9 km was a flat road. I was running near three chaps, Marcus, Jonathan and Rod; Marcus made a comment that sounded plausible and hopeful in equal measure, “We’ll probably run ourselves fit by day six”. The road became trail as we finally turned northward, northWest through Cona Glenn for a 15 km riverside run, then onto footpaths over to Glenfinnan and our first camp. A dramatic viaduct made famous by Harry Potter films loomed over our campsite. Our tents were ready and a volunteer helpfully carried my main bag to mine. I had finished in 3:47 and was running 25th, a lot higher up the field of 94 than I expected. The camp was filled with a sprit of camaraderie as we chatted, ate, snoozed, ate more, before shuffling off for an early night.
Day 2 – Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn
57 km – 1,800m height gain
Day two started with another glorious blue sky; this can’t last, it’s May and we’re in Scotland! After passing under the ‘Hogwarts’ viaduct I ran steadily north up the valley, 4 km of road was a perfect time to gather my thoughts, the following 53 km would be tough terrain. I’d set off after most of my competitors, with just a few of the fastest guys having a more relaxed morning, this gave me my first taste of running alone. I’d treated myself to a Garmin Fenix 3 and had loaded each of the eight days onto the watch, these GPX files were provided by the event team and proved very accurate. The 500m climb at kilometre eight was a tough start and the path disappeared as we descended to checkpoint one where I finally caught a bunch of runners. The following 20 km took us through varied terrain on trails that frequently vanished into bog before reaching CP2. The final 20 km had one more tough climb and a final loch-side stint that I’d forgotten about; this turned into a nightmarish few kilometres that included a total energy bonk, some walking and a confused sprint finish. Weird. I finished in 9:29 and placed 23rd.
Day 3 – Kinloch Hourn to Achnashellach
68 km – 2,400m height gain
After eating pretty well last night, and sleeping even better, the morning of day three had surprised me, I felt positive and eager to start. My legs felt achey but still strong and I started the first climb with a smile. At 800 m of ascent (in about ten km) The Saddle at Bealach was a tough start to a day described by Shane as “likely to be the hardest”. After about 18 km I felt alarmingly tired, so I used the rare glimpse of civilisation at Shiel Bridge to buy a can of Coke and phone home; this emotional and calorific boost did wonders and I treated myself to a short walk in the sun.
Although three more steep climbs graced day three, I never felt defeated. I settled in and enjoyed the views where possible; the falls at the Glomach gorge were worth a pause. A dip in Loch Calavie helped too. After 12:37 I reached the camp and felt physically and emotionally spent, I’d ran 70 km in blazing sunshine and had dropped down to 34th.
Day 4 – Achnashellach to Kinlochewe
35 km – 1,400m height gain
The easy day, almost a rest day compared to days two and three! The strategy chat around the camp seemed to suggest a sensible steady pace might be the smart thing to do as days five, six and seven were all long. The course started with an eight km climb up 600 m of beautiful trails, I ran strongly, surprised by the spring in my step considering yesterday! The descent to CP1 was too much fun to resist so I ran it like a fell race, pushing my lungs as well as my legs. The climb to Sail Mhor was long and draggy, I wish I hadn’t removed my poles but I knew I could run this day fast and light so I kept the pace up. The last third was super technical and was mostly off-track with tricky contouring and quad punishing step-ups. The last five km were so much fun the steady pace plan was ‘out the window’ and I ran down to the camp at Kinlochewe at speed. Day four dispatched in 5:53, 15th place. Feeling almost cocky!
Day 5 – Kinlochewe to Inverlael
44 km – 1,400 height gain
I’d used the long afternoon yesterday to rest up and eat well, I’d also enjoyed a big breakfast and felt rested enough to start day five. The first 15 km were a steady climb up to Lochan Fada, the views were stunning, as was the sense of remoteness. Running over mountain ridge saddles through beautiful glens, flanked by steep mountains and filled with acres of yellow flowers and meandering rivers; this was like nothing I’ve experienced before, almost otherworldly. The descent to the checkpoint brought civilisation, some people and a road, it was a little jarring.
With about ten km left it’s hard to imagine how things could fall apart so quickly; my big toe had been hurting all day on my left foot and after an hour or so I developed severe knee pain, mostly behind my right kneecap. I started relying on my poles more and more as the pain intensified. The descent steepened and with camp in sight my pace reduced to zero. I couldn’t bend my knees. I was shuffling down a grass field on my bum. I was done. After nearly eight hours I stumbled into camp 43rd and was ushered into an ice cold river to try and reduce the swelling in my knees.
Day 6 – Inverlael to Inchnadamph
72 km – 1,400m height gain
Last night I had slept poorly, my toe was not happy with my sleeping bag, my knees were agony and I’d fallen asleep in hot and cold flu-like symptoms. I’d woken up delirious and crawled into the medical tent at 3 a.m. I think I’d planned to be discovered in the morning but the tent was manned 24/7 and I was ‘seen to’, I had a raging temperature and felt confused. After breakfast I ignored the advice to skip day six, I was desperate to ‘complete’ even though ‘competing’ was no longer an option. My only chance was to walk supported by poles for the whole day – I packed a lot of food! As the trail snaked up through Interlael Forest I chatted with ‘Aussie’ Graham, he kept my mind off my pains for a few kilometres but I soon had to let him go as my pace slowed. Deep ravines cut through a landscape of gorse bushes. Cool rivers with clear pools and idyllic waterfalls imprinted themselves in my soul. I was simultaneously high and low; the emotions swelled as the inevitable decision built, I calculated that I’d just reach checkpoint one, the second half of the day was tougher and more remote, an evacuation would mean a helicopter… I could not continue. I sobbed loudly, lonely with my thoughts of the accumulated effort I’d put into this event. I reached the half way checkpoint in 8:30 and stopped.
Day 7 – Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie
61 km – 1,600 height gain
Another evening of feverish symptoms meant I was back in the medical area. There was no point starting day seven, knowing I couldn’t be a finisher was sucking the magic out of the event for me, I tried to stay positive around other competitors, in truth I felt ill and in constant pain. I negotiated a re-insertion point to complete the last third of day seven; I waited, with a few other non-finishers, until Marcus (the leader) came through and I started my pole-assisted walk. Even this easy terrain presented a real challenge to my broken body; after about twelve km the route turned to road, a final climb to camp alongside Loch Inchard, encouraged up the last kilometre by Darren. I should have taken the organisers’ advice and enjoyed a rest day.
Day 8 – Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath
Day eight was pleasant enough as I witnessed the event from the other side; I watched all my new friends set off, I waddled around camp as it was dismantled around me like a military operation. This circus that reappears each day reassembled like magic takes some impressive organisation and effort. I’d hoped to cheer on the finishers but for once our final camp wasn’t near the finish line. So I sat at the top of the UK and looked north to sea and contemplated my journey; about 300 km of the 400 I’d hoped to finish was something to be proud of. The award ceremony was simultaneously inspiring and gutting, I really wanted that medal; anyone who completed the Cape Wrath Ultra should be enormously proud of themselves, what an adventure.
As I crawled into my tent for the final time I donned my head torch, found a scalpel blade in my first-aid kit and jabbed it into my severely swollen toe. I won’t try to describe what oozed out; but the relief was instant and I slept well for the first time in days.
It took me a while to be proud of what I achieved; initially a DNF feels like a failure, but injuries can happen to anyone at anytime. When I attempt something like this again I’ll train more; 50 or 60 km runs would boost confidence as would more back-to-back runs. Most importantly I’ll build strength work into my training plan; my knee pain ‘Patellofemoral pain syndrome’ was essentially my knees telling me to stop, stronger legs would have helped. Maybe I’ll return to the Cape Wrath Ultra in 2018; it’s an amazing event.
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