Cape Wrath Ultra: “My journey into the Heart of Darkness” OR “Feet, Eat, Sleep, Repeat”

Below is a report from Simon following his completion of the ‘Cape Wrath Ultra’  – plenty of content and pictures of the stunning views but also including  the odd foot, arm and result tickets) – enjoy 🙂 

Cape Wrath Ultra: “My journey into the Heart of Darkness” OR “Feet, Eat, Sleep, Repeat”

 

In the week preceding the start of Cape Wrath Ultra I jokingly commented on the participants group that Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” randomly came to mind whilst preparing food packs and contemplating what an idiot I was for even entering those seemingly countless months previously. Never has a truer word been spoken in jest…

 

For those not aware, the Cape Wrath Ultra is an 8-day, staged, 400+km exploration from Fort William to the light house at Cape Wrath, with a time limit of either 15 or 16 hours each day. The route weaves its way through the Scottish Highlands, covering 11,000+m of elevation in some of the most remote locations in the UK, following a mix of road (thankfully little of that), tracks, trail, and lots of pathless terrain (think thigh deep heather, tussocks, bogs, and plenty of river crossings), on an unmarked route, relying on a map and compass or GPS. It’s rumoured to be one of the hardest out there, for various reasons, and that point was reinforced by many of those I met on the event who all agreed this was the hardest they’d completed in comparison to some of the other infamous events such as MDS and Dragons Back – I didn’t know this when I entered! During the day participants are fully self-sufficient, carrying all food required whilst on course, and collecting water from rivers and streams. There were never more than 3 timed checkpoints each day, staffed by a small safety team if you needed extraction or to pull you from the course if you timed out; if you were lucky, they’d offer some encouraging abuse to keep you moving…

 

A campsite was set up ready at the end of each day next to a river or loch for washing, with a cooked dinner and breakfast provided by the crew of volunteers. Due to Covid we were allocated individual 2-man tents rather than their planned 8-man tents; I’m not sure if shared tents would have been better, our weather was mostly very good so a shared communal area of the larger tents to keep kit dry was mostly unnecessary. The individual tents were cramped but adequate, you just had to be efficient and tidy with kit, storing most items outside in the 80lt drybag we could each bring. Thankfully tents are pre-pitched by the crew, so that was one thing not having to factor into each day’s routine. This was going to be so far out of my comfort zone and stretch and test me in so many ways, from the huge distance, elevation, terrain, navigation, isolation, days on feet, nutrition, self-sufficiency, and aspects of camp life….

 

When I’d entered for the 3rd running of the CWU, scheduled for May 2020, I had the idea to broadly follow a 50-mile training plan supplemented with extra strength work and focus on elevation and technical terrain, knowing any higher volume leads me to injury and quite frankly the misery of running taking over all my weekends and entire life, and if that had happened, I’d still be restoring the Scimitar now! Although there’s a lack of mountains in the Peak District, that was my main training ground (covid lockdown allowing) and it would turn out that the pathless bogs and tussocks of the Dark Peak were ideal territory, supplemented with a few trips to the Lake District (I had read a blog from a previous winner who had trained predominantly around Kinder, so at least I knew I was in good company).

 

So, Covid happened; May ’20 got postponed 12 months and training went down the pan. Like many others during lockdown 1, I had a crisis of focus, rapid decline in training, lack of motivation to slog out the miles on the same, all too familiar flat local trails, but luckily saw the opportunity to use the 12 months extra time to get some focus back and take this more seriously, so hired Andy Brooks of Peak Running to provide his expert coaching. I knew I needed flexibility and I wouldn’t have been able, or wanted, to stick to a rigid daily plan, but just wanted weekly mileage and elevation targets, a bit of an idea how to integrate strength and modest speed & hill work into the long, slow runs, and general advice on how to tackle a multi-day ultra.

 

I’d managed to follow most of the plan, a bit low on elevation due to the flatness of south Derby, but had got back on track when we could travel farther afield. However, near disaster struck when I frustratingly picked up a hamstring injury in Feb 2021 whilst on a gentle jog back from my local fishmonger (crab and cod if I remember rightly). My plan had increased intensity, volume and strength work in the lead-up, and although this felt modest with no ill effects for a month or so I think my body had just given up. This led to a good 4 weeks off any running or leg strength work before I could foam-roll pain-free and I was confident to start again, taking a couch-to-5K approach over 3-4 weeks before being back at full volume. From then on, I stuck solely to low effort runs, I just wasn’t confident, and couldn’t afford for anymore niggles. Thankfully, for me, during my enforced rest the May start was postponed again with options to defer to August ‘21 or May ‘22; not wanting another 6 months of training over winter I opted for August accepting it would be a midge-fest.

 

The training, to my mind, was fairly low volume too as I’m old now and prone to niggles (see above). The biggest weeks (2 of them overall) were ~70 miles, which I completed as advised in the Lake District, camping for 3 big back-to-back days of running to get some good mountain training which I can’t find in the Peak District, and to work out managing camp life as well as testing full day kit. Although the rocky passes of the Lakes were no doubt great training, as I’ve said the off-trail bogs and moors of Kinder and Bleaklow served as an excellent training ground for the pathless sections on CW; looking back I noticed on the more technical sections I was ‘relatively’ faster than others around me, more so toward the end of the week, perhaps a combination of strength (bogs are energy sapping) with being acclimatised to look ahead to efficiently navigate around mounds and trenches. Thankfully the CWU moorland was exceptionally dry compared to the Dark Peak and the trenches were mere steps compared to the 6-foot trenches I’ve trained around. Saying it was dry is relative though, feet were constantly wet, as soon as they’d start to dry to tolerable moistness, they’d be another river to wade through just to re-wet them enough to ensure trench foot was never far from mind.

 

Was I ready? Everyone will always say no, me included, but I’d stuck to the plan albeit with a harder taper mainly due to laziness, so I was as ready as I could ever be. I drove up to Scotland a few days before to allow a more relaxing drive and to stretch my legs, staying in Moffat for one night and a short hike, followed by a couple of nights in Fort William to fill up on plenty of local craft beer from the Black Isle brewery tap bar. The decision to drive up early was also partly (or even mainly) because I wanted to take the Scimitar for a decent road trip after finishing the restoration last year and to be honest, I wasn’t fully confident it would make it without assistance from the AA. I was as equally worried about my own performance in the event too, but the car made it faultlessly J. Looking back the road trip was maybe an omen of my event too – initial nervous trepidation, steady cruising, bursts of speed, the occasional stop to refuel, but no major breakdowns and a sigh of relief when I arrived. btw the trip back wasn’t so faultless though I hasten to add I’ve since discovered it was nothing to do with my car building skills. Anyway, this isn’t a classic car forum, so back to the running.

 

As everyone had said beforehand, “start slow”. No fear in doing anything else, after a final brew and bite of the bacon sarnie I’d been given by the B&B, with bagpipes playing us out and Ben Nevis in the background, I slotted into the back of the field from the start. We had a nice little group, getting to know each other as we trotted down the road under uncharacteristically sunny skies. Some of those from Day 1 would become good running companions and week-long nemeses for the rest of the tour. However, at the end of Day 1 I felt worryingly bad, if I felt like this after a short day I was going to seriously struggle for the rest of the week, but I put it down to the high temperature (someone had measured 30C), sun exposure, and extended 4 weeks taper I’d given myself with very little running or elevation in that period, and hoped my body would adapt. Thankfully it did.

 

The next few days stayed hot, and had their usual ultra-mood elevator swings, nothing I wasn’t used to. My pace was very closely matched with a local runner, Bee, except on the descents where she’d effortlessly float off into the distance until I’d gradually slog away to catch up over the next flattish section, so we wiled away the hours and first few days together, occasionally overlapping with another Scot, Kirstine, who would become my mountain climbing nemesis, mostly in silence from me apart from my telling of the best joke in the world, which didn’t go down well. I think it was day 2 when I brought up the topic of cannibalism with Kirstine, although I wasn’t even that hungry at the time and still had a full day’s food supply; the conversation didn’t last long, maybe it was too early in the week to bring it up?

 

It wasn’t particularly planned but also not entirely coincidental I was pacing with women, the stats showed that the female drop-out rate is lower than the men’s since they’re more sensible and start slower (right, ladies?), and those at the back in the first few days have a higher success rate. The pace was comfortable and still under cut-off times so there was no need to get sucked into a battle with anyone else. This point was to be proven when 2 or 3 lads who were a little faster in those early days ended up behind me on the final days.

Other’s blogs and the website have described the terrain in more detail so I won’t repeat, and photos really don’t do it justice, but suffice to say the Scottish Highlands are epic and magnificent, with uninterrupted sweeping vistas of Bens, Glens, crags and Lochs. You could often see the mountain pass to aim for looking no more than 3-4 miles away, only to find yourself hours later seemingly no closer and ending up at more like 10 miles!

 

Over the first 4-5 days the running and hiking were great, the hours seemed to fly-by, there were the usual mild mood swings, physical discomfort, but you soon learn as an ultra-runner these are manageable, and the level of pain plateaus with the technical terrain and views a welcome distraction, so job’s a good’un. 

When I entered, I honestly never thought I’d make it past day 3, it’s not the longest distance but has the most elevation and despite this day having the extra bonus hour to finish it has previously had the biggest drop-out rate of the 8 days. I’m usually in the bottom 25% of finishers on ultras I’ve completed before, so coupled with a previous finish rate of 60% I was fairly sure day 3 would see me DNF and I’d become a non-competitive runner for the remaining 5 days, being allowed to run half day’s dependent on transport and access to insertion points. I ran day 3 with the same small group, albeit strung out that formed on day 1, and I think that helped all of us to keep moving at a steady, metronomic pace. Although eventually finishing just after dusk with just half an hour to spare, it never felt rushed so I was pretty surprised, and obviously happy with that, until it slowly dawned that I was actually going to have to try and finish, ‘just’ 5 more days to go! As predicted, plenty didn’t make it that day.

 

My memory of days 4 and 5 have faded, they were both short days (21 and 27 miles I think), so allowed for a stress-free run and plenty of time in camp to wash, check feet, eat and sleep. What I do remember is from day 5 the mood swings gradually became more compressed and more extreme, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I don’t know if it was the physical exertion, the achingly slow progress over relentless rocks and tussocks, the prolonged periods of isolation and self-doubt, or the sleep deprivation. From the second night onward, I really struggled to get any decent sleep through a combination of aching feet and muscles but mostly from horrendous night sweats, I would manage to doze off around midnight but only to awaken at 1-2 am drenched in sweat and unable to get a comfortable temperature for another hour or 2, just before the inevitable 5am alarm to raise me from my fatigue-ridden slumber. I’ve never experienced this type of night sweats before, but speaking to people in camp I wasn’t alone and the thinking is it’s caused by either dehydration during the day so the body was sweating out toxins, or that it was part of the bodies healing process from the day’s exertions. Whatever it was I didn’t like it, the fatigue each morning was becoming a drain and my appetite at breakfast was waning so it was becoming more of an effort each morning to force down sufficient calories, but at least the food could be washed down with limitless mugs of tea.

 

I think it was day 6, soon after the mid-way checkpoint, when I noticed I was becoming detached from reality. I hadn’t seen any other runners for a long time and I was coming in and out of a dream-like state; I was fully aware of the feeling so it wasn’t worrying, but at times it was like moving without conscious thought, not effortless, but in the flow, like my body knew what to do, there was no outside world, this was my life, nothing else mattered or even existed… I’ve read of people’s experiences like this but usually associated with single-stage events over 30-40 hours but never experienced, it was quite a revelation, is this the runners high that people talk of but has always eluded me? I felt almost elated at times, the middle 26 miles were runnable (book-ended by big mountain passes), good gradient, not too uneven and I found myself skipping along almost dancing around my poles, this was great, for now…, but wow, a real journey of exploration, what a roller coaster ride it was!!!

 

It rained at the end of day 6. A Lot! It was a bit scary descending the final gorge at times surrounded by thigh-deep torrents of rising water, it’s character building apparently, or some other nonsense, but I survived the descent and enjoyed the final few miles run into camp on flat, winding single track in the pissing rain, just like a good winter fell race in the Peaks, but warmer!

 

Day 7 I’d rather forget; I broke a pole on the first descent, quads were done from then onwards. The horrific underfoot conditions along the final loch were mentally, physically and emotionally sapping. Despite being so close to the end of day 7 (that’s relative by the way), and the knowledge I might just complete all 8 days, I’ve never felt more like stopping to just lay down, cry and sleep ever before! I was done, spent up, no one around to pick me up, no biscuits left in the tin, and down to the last pieces of hill food with pretty much just emergency food left! I think it was the thought of all the messages of support through the week, the struggles of fellow competitors digging deeper than can be expressed, that stopped me from even just sitting down for 30 seconds… Strangely enough, despite the near melt-down, when I arrived into camp Sabrina Verjee was near the finish (she’s an elite in this mad world of adventure racing) and said they’d seen someone (me) coming down the road into camp and they were debating if it was crew they were moving too fast to be a competitor, nah that was me; I’ll take that compliment…

 

Day 8 was never going to be easy but no one had ever DNFd on the last day with such a generous cut-off, and for the first time I woke in an exuberant mood, hungry for breakfast for the first time in days, I actually managed seconds. This was it! I might just finish!!  Today was just about getting the job done, grind out the last few miles, take in the views and look forward to the café beer whilst ‘pretending’ to try and beat Kirstine one last time (it didn’t happen, too many tough climbs for me whilst she’d remained strong and was out of sight as soon as we left the initial flat track). As an unexpected surprise a local family had set up an aid station on the road section a couple of miles out of camp, the only normal people I’d seen on the course all week, a sign we were back in civilisation, , so I grabbed a handful of crisps and drink, had a quick chat with high 5’s with the kids and then cracked on.

 

After the first half on road and track the route was back to being boggy, off-trail again, with short-sharp descents and climbs along the coastal cliffs; at least today there was always someone in view to provide reassurance of route choice. The final mile or two picked up an undulating 4X4 track to the lighthouse, being so close I actually forced a run even though I didn’t need to, it just felt right to finish as strong as I could. A few hundred yards along a minibus full of finishers was heading back down to take them to our ferry boat about an hour away, I moved over onto the verge but it stopped adjacent to me as the driver got out his bugle and I was handed a can of beer to cheers from those inside, I took a quick swig and set off again with the drivers bugling seemingly pushing me onward with a grin on my face; never before has McEwans finest Export ever tasted so much like sweet nectar. Half an hour or so later I could see the finish line flags, but the lighthouse was obscured by dense mist, and then that was it, it was over. It was a relief more than anything, almost an anti-climax, my body and mind had been so tuned to focus on just forward momentum interrupted by the regimen of camp life I didn’t really know what to do. So, some photos and hugs with the crew and I headed into the café to another round of applause, a sandwich, tea and another McEwans whilst we waited for our turn on the minibus.

 

I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet what I achieved, it’s hard to comprehend looking back to where it all started with the hours of training and preparation, or even why I decided to enter in the first place. The race director, Shane, had described it at the race briefing as a privilege to be there, and it absolutely was, and an honour to run with you with some great athletes, and I’m including everyone who made the start line, not just the elites, and to see first-hand how the fast kids do it during the inevitable over-taking early each day; oh how I wished I’d had their extra 30 hours in camp too to do my feet, eat, and sleep.

 

I keep randomly remembering little things, I’m sure that will continue for a while whilst I process and tease apart 8 of the most tortuous, adventurous, epic, amazing days of my life which at the moment have seemingly blended into one, sometimes feeling like aeons ago, other times like it was yesterday. I think that’s one of the best parts, and I’ll continue to regale (bore) my friends over a few pints for the weeks to come, milking them for more adulation until it’s a distant memory… They keep telling me what I’ve achieved is amazing, maybe in time it will focus into reality and I’ll think that too and get rid of this imposter syndrome.

 

I owe a lot of thanks to so many, I couldn’t have done it without the support and camaraderie on course and in the camp from competitors and crew alike, always happy to help and support especially when I was properly miserable, I felt a sense of belonging; the messages from family, friends, running clubs (SRC, LERC, Shelton, Derwent..), and the coaching group, they really meant so much at the end of a tough day, more so than on any other event; of course coach Andy, without his guidance I’d have been a sure-fire DNF, or even a DNS.

 

Some numbers:

  • Starters = 89
  • Competitive finishers = 52 (60% similar to the previous 2 events)
  • My position = 50
  • Total time on feet = 83 hours
  • Winning time = 50 hours
  • Weight loss = 4 kg (this was 2 weeks after, I neglected to weigh myself straight afterward)

 

Things that I learnt:

  • CWU is effin hard, a full on suffer fest at times, physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • CWU is amazing, you can go hours without seeing any people or signs of civilisation, it really was a privilege to solo navigate through such remote wilderness.
  • Physically, pain reaches a plateau which you just learnt to deal with.
  • The sleep deprivation was by far the hardest bit, affecting mental and emotional capacity. I look back in fondness at the incredible mood swings, from ecstatic highs to crushing lows, the trance-like state of mind and the acid-trip-like vividness of the greens and blues of the sweeping Highlands.
  • Anyone can do more than the think, you just have to be prepared to try.
  • I still feel like an imposter, like it was an outer body experience seeing someone else doing it, not me. One day I hope that might change.
  • I will go back to run the Highlands again, but not at CWU, been there and done it.
  • Topo shoes are way better built than Altra, although they don’t drain so well, and green ones are better than red.

 

My advice for CWU, and maybe running or other stuff in general:

  • If you live by the sword, prepare to die by the sword (I actually choose to do this stuff)
  • Don’t wait until you think you’re ready, you’ll never think you are and you’ll only find out by doing.
  • Enter first, then worry about the training (although that’s probably the worst bit of advice I could give, but that’s how I did it anyway).
  • Get a good coach who asks about your background and has specificity in your type of event; that way if you find out you weren’t ready you have someone to blame.
  • Listen to your coach, not anyone else; do yourtraining at your pace, not anyone else.
  • If you want a good idea of the terrain, have a go at the Kinder Dozen (I attempted it twice during training, and bailed out both times, but I will finish next time).
  • Train with all your kit and nutrition, on specific terrain.
  • Be efficient in camp, know what you’re going to do, and do it before you eat.
  • Take more waterproof bags than you think you need
  • Take more socks than you think you need (I can recommend Injinji merino, they would dry to a tolerable dampness over-night, my non-merino would still be sodden)
  • 4 pairs of pants are plenty for 8 days, could have got away with 2 I recon.
  • Everyone stinks, don’t worry about it! Except the leaders, they have sooo much time in camp they get to have a decent river wash each day.
  • Poles work! Until they break!
  • Best bit of kit – a shoehorn!
  • Second best bit of kit – laminated day cards showing distances, elevations, route profile and target pacing.
  • Take a variety of hill food to avoid getting bored and that will last the week in a warm bag (mine consisted of different flavoured nuts, biltong, Veloforte bars, Awesome bars, mini malt loaf, min flapjacks, salt tabs (I only drank plain water), and lemon sherbets)

 

Simon Bray…

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