The Cape Wrath Ultra (Scotland’s Expedition Race)
Fort William to Cape Wrath (248 Miles, 8 Days)
Sunday 22 May – Sunday 29 May 2016
By Phil Humphries
Back in 2010 not long after I started running ultra-marathons I attended an evening talk at Run and Become about the Marathon des Sables (MdS) – the famous 6-day desert race held in southern Morocco. The idea of participating in a multi-stage race in a remote environment appealed to my sense of adventure and desire to test my endurance. However the high cost, and the fact that it gets sold-out years in advance were just two of many things that put me off entering the MdS. Multi-stage ultras all seemed to take place in hard to get to places and cost a huge sum of money to enter even before you add in the costs of flights, accommodation, specialist gear etc. so I pretty much gave up the idea and satisfied myself with single-day ultramarathons in Scotland, with the pinnacle of my achievements being the completion of the 95 mile West Highland Way Race in 2013. I have always enjoyed hill-walking in Scotland since well before I took up running 11 years ago, and my favorite areas are the remote parts to the north-west of the Great Glen e.g. Kintail, Torridon, Assynt etc. Over the years I had often thought about doing a back-packing trip journeying south-to-north and taking in some of these remote areas en-route, but it would need a great deal of planning and several weeks of valuable holiday time, so I put it aside as a goal for when I retire.
Then in 2014 when I heard that a Scottish multi-stage ultra race was being planned along the Cape Wrath Trail I got very excited and quickly signed up to receive the email newsletters. The more I found out about this event the more I wanted to do it, as it sounded the perfect way of fulfilling two dreams in one go. So when entries opened in June 2015 for the inaugural Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) I filled in my online entry that very morning and with very little hesitation hit the button and I was in.
Training What Training ?
So what training do need to you do for a 250 mile 8-day running race across some of Scotland’s roughest and remote terrain – I didn’t know? But for all my previous races over the last 11 years (from 5km to a 95 mile ultra) I have never followed a training plan or used professional trainer, so why start now? Every race I have ever started I have always finished, so I was sure my unstructured approach to training would work fine again. For me training needs to be enjoyed, so if I just don’t fancy going out running on a particular day then I won’t. I gave up counting miles since my Garmin packed in, and I don’t record the details of each run or cross-training session. When I signed up for the CWU we were still in the process of moving house, I was also carrying a long-term persistent knee problem, for which I was getting treatment from an Osteopath. Paul Nelson’s Friday morning yoga sessions were improving my core and flexibility, but I knew I had a long way to go in my preparation. Despite my discomfort I was spurred on by the thought of Cape Wrath recording a 7 second PB in the 42 mile Devil o’ the Highlands ultra in August and also 7th place in the 33 mile Tiree ultra in September. Then in October I ran the Munich marathon which did not go well, I had a nose-bleed just before heading to the start and my knee flared up after half way. At the finish I felt pretty dreadful (worst I have ever been at the end of a race), which was only cured by extensive sampling of the free beer. I finished the GlenOgle 33mile race in November in an ok time with less knee pain, but I was still struggling to run comfortably and improve my fitness. After that I decided to avoid racing altogether until the Highland Fling at the end of the following April. My knee started to improve following further treatment from my Osteopath and shifting the majority of my training off-road. However I lost 3 weeks of training time over Christmas and New Year while recovering from a toe-nail operation. By then there were only 4 months left to train for the CWU and apart from a much improved knee (and a pain-free big toe) I did not feel any fitter than back in June when I signed up. However despite a calf strain in February and a sore hip in March further reducing my training efforts to well below what I wanted, I still managed to do enough back-to-back long runs to convince myself I was in with a chance of hobbling all the way from Fort William to Cape Wrath at the end of May. A 9 second PB in the 53 mile Highland Fling race at the end of April with no significant knee, calf or hip problems gave me further confidence that I would be ok to at least start the event. So over the next 3 weeks I just did the odd short run here and there while I concentrated on sorting out the sleeping bag, mat, clothes, personal gear, running food etc. that I would need for the entire CWU adventure and how to fit it all into the mandatory 79-litre dry bag.
On Saturday 21 May it poured with rain as we arrived in Fort William with a forecast of more to come tomorrow for the start of the race. Registration was at the Nevis Center and the process was well organized, efficient, friendly and relaxed. We received our race maps and were introduced to our GPS tracking devices and its features. We also had our photos taken for website. In the evening there was a briefing and Q&A session from event director Shane Ohly and race director/route planner Gary Tompsett. We were also introduced to other key members of the Ourea Events team and many of the volunteers who would help look after us for the next 8 days. Naturally the briefing concentrated around safety, race rules and information regarding the nature of the route and terrain we would encounter. We were given advice about river crossings – there would be over 100 of them en-route, mostly without bridges. Crossing these rivers could become potentially dangerous if there were several days of persistent rain. We were also told that we were required to follow the exact line of the race route as drawn on our maps and in the GPX file. Only a deviation of up to 200m either side of the line would be allowed and any deviations beyond that could incur time penalties or even disqualification. I do not possess a navigational GPS device and was confident my map reading skills would be up to the task, but still knowing that the event team would be watching our trackers like hawks I knew there would be little room for error. Worse still our progress along the race route would be made public via the race website in near real-time, so if I made a serious navigational error I would also suffer the embarrassment of knowing anyone watching back home would also see it.
That evening a buffet meal, which was a good opportunity to get to know some of the other participants, none of whom I knew prior to the event. Talking to other people there seemed to be a quite a range of experience, and it was reassuring to know that like myself there were many other people who were first-timers at this kind of multi-day running event.
Day 1 – Fort William to Glenfinnan (23 miles, 500m Ascent)
An Easy Start
Early Sunday morning I walked down Fort William High St from my overnight accommodation lugging my 79L dry bag that contained all the sleeping gear, spare clothing, running food etc. that I would need for the next 8 days. Our bags were loaded onto vans at the Nevis Centre and we were left with just out day packs. Next there was a short ferry trip over Loch Linnhe to Camuslang on the shore opposite Fort William.
On reaching the other side of the sea loch we were put onto a smaller boat in batches of 10 and ferried ashore to the tune of a lone piper. It took a while to get all the competitors ashore, but the sun was shining and there was tea and cake laid on in the local village hall, so it was all far too serene to be feeling any race nerves.
We had a group photo taken then at 10:15 we were off. I started slowly near the back, keen not to get carried away and burn myself out. The first section was 5 miles along a mainly flat single track road hugging the coast. Then we turned west and inland along Cona Glen on good section of double track. I enjoyed ambling along at an easy pace working my way through the field chatting to people as I went and taking photos. I had a good chat with Gene Dykes from the USA, who at 68 was the oldest competitor and a prolific endurance runner having completed several 100-mile races and was still consistently running marathons around the 3-hour mark or below. He said in a couple of years time he was going to try and break the world marathon record for a 70-year old – I didn’t doubt him as he certainly looked in good shape for his age. About half way up the glen we had a rain shower, so it was on with the waterproof jacket for a while. Little did I know at the time, but this was going to be the only significant rain we would encounter while during the whole race. At about 16 miles we climbed steeply out of Cona Glen and over a nameless bealach. The path turned into a rocky, muddy single track that twisted its way northwards down through a glen. There was plenty of sliding on wet rocks and boggy bits. I jarred my hip on a rock and almost fell in the process, my calf muscle was sore and I was finding the going awkward, which made me worry about how I would get through the whole thing given this was meant to be the easiest day.
The path got better as the glen widened out at the bottom and we were on good double track again. I chatted to Fred Coppens from Belgium and he told me about some of the multi-stage races he had done in Africa, where the race safety briefing consisted mostly of a long list of animals that could kill you. He said he disliked big spiders the most, but I assured him there are no big dangerous spiders in Scotland, just midges and ticks (he laughed). Not long before we turned onto the main road at Glenfinnan we crossed over a bridge at the head of the Loch Shiel with the sky reflecting perfectly off the still waters.
I arrived with Fred through the finish arch at the camp in Glenfinnan just over 4 hours after we started. We dibbed our dibbers to record our finish times and learned we were in joint 32nd position about 1hr 10min behind the leaders. After handing over our GPS trackers the evening ritual began for the first time, as each runner arrive they would be greeted by Shane Ohly (event director) who would inform us of the layout of the camp and where the nearest river was if we wanted a wash. A member of the volunteer support crew would fetch our kit bags, asked us how we were feeling and escort us to our sleeping tents. There were 8 people to each tent which consisted of a door into a large central area with 4 sleeping compartments that we shared two people to each compartment. The sleeping compartments were rather cosy, but there was plenty of room for kit storage in the central area. The tents were also tall enough to stand up which was a welcome bonus. It was a short day so there was plenty of time to get to know the other members of tent number 10 (Douchery) with whom I would be living with for the next 8 days and nights. Every day when we arrived in camp there was food available straight-away: hot drinks, soup, cake and chips! Then there would be an evening meal available from 6:30pm onwards that was usually a hearty vegetable curry or stew with rice or couscous followed by cake and cold custard – by day 3 to satisfy my ever increasing hunger I would be eating two portions of everything. It rained on and off in the evening, so we were all glad to be able to sit down, eat and socialize in a spacious competitor marquee that along with a cook tent, medical tent and race admin tent formed the focal point of our campsite.
Day 2 – Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn (35 miles, 1800m Ascent)
Into Unknown Territory
The morning ritual started at about 5:30am when the sun was already in the sky, shuffling noises in tents would start and the bladder would send ever more urgent requests to the brain. After the first morning it was easy to fall into a morning routine of throw on damp running kit on, run to the loo, eat breakfast, wash breakfast things, brush-teeth, loo, sort out day-pack, pack kit bag, carry kit-bag to van, undergo day-pack kit inspection, go to start tent, collect GPS tracker, listen to quick briefing form Shane Ohly, dib-out and run… The choice for breakfast was tea, coffee etc. plus cereal, do-it-your-self porridge sachets, baked beans, scrambled egg, bread or toast. Every morning I had a big mug of sweet milky tea, and a big portion of beans, scrambled eggs and two slices of brown bread. Basically you could start running each morning at any time between 7am and 9am. If you were at the slower end it was advisable to start close to 7am (so you had more chance of beating the check-point cut-offs) and if you were one of the faster runners then you could have a lie-in and start close to 9am which gave the support crew a chance to re-locate the entire camp to a new place and get the tea and chips on the go in time for your arrival. On Day 2 there was a big queue to leave from 7am onwards and the midges were out and biting, so I took my time and waited until it was less busy and left at about 7.45am. That is pretty much how it went for the remaining days; many people were keen to get out as early as possible, so I took my time and left just after the main rush when I was happy I was ready.
The first few miles of day 2 were flat to begin with following a minor road, and then a good wide track that narrowed to a path as it climbed steeply up to a pass at 450m (Bealach A’ Chaorainn).
Day 2 was unknown territory for me, not because of the route, but because I had never done a race that was over more than one day. I took it pretty easy to begin with chatting to people along the way and taking photos. My sore hip and calf muscle from yesterday had gone away, so I was happy and feeling fresh. The weather was fine and we had learnt in camp that the forecast was looking dry until at least Friday! From Bealach A’ Chaorainn there was a long pathless descent that took us down to the bridge over the River Pean which was the first checkpoint of the day at about 9 miles in. Next the route then swung west along Glen Dessarry and into the wilds of Knoydart – one of the remotest and scenic parts of the highlands. There was a good track to begin with, but it soon became rough and rocky underfoot, the valley narrowed into a gorge and the path almost disappeared. It was here that Marcus Scotney (the eventual race winner) first ran past me running light and efficiently making easy work of the rough ground. I caught up with Louise Staples and we navigated our way amongst the rocks and lochans ensuring we crossed the river at the right point before the waterfalls made it difficult and dangerous. The field of runners by now had really thinned out, so it was good to run with someone else of a similar pace and share the journey through such the incredible scenery. The western end of Glen Dessarry opened out to a sea loch and we descended a good rocky path down to Sourlies bothy and on to a beach covered with rocks and seaweed. The route took us along the beach and round a sharp headland where could see the ruins of Carnoch and a bridge where the second checkpoint of the day was. However to get there we had to cross over a mile of pathless swamp, we tried to run light and swiftly, but every now and then a foot would disappear through soggy grass into a hidden pool below. We were glad to get to the other side and meet members of our ever-cheerful and encouraging support crew. They had travelled to the checkpoint by boat, which is the only way to get to this remote point other than a long rough journey by foot. From there we followed the river Carnach on a good path inland towards the rocky fortress-like peak of Ben Aden. We were then joined by Richard Dreijer, one of my tent-mates. As we climbed up through the glen at the foot of Ben Aden the path eventually disappeared as we turned north into a steep sided gorge. This was a truly remote yet serene place and I thought to myself I must return one day and climb Ben Aden. There were plenty of grey clouds in the sky, but a little sunshine too and it remained dry, but I wondered how very different this place would be in wind and rain.
Forging onwards we identified the bend in the river from which we needed to turn northwest and head up a steep featureless slope to join a faint path that would take us up over a 522m pass on the shoulder of the Luinne Bheinn. On the ascent we were joined by Darren Grigas who had been resting at the foot of the slope and was glad of a bit of company. As we climbed we got some incredible views of remote glens to the south and east below framed by the rocky backdrop of Ben Aden and sharp peak of Sgurr na Ciche at 1040m, the highest mountain in Knoydart.
After reaching the summit it was time to let loose and enjoy an exhilarating downhill run all the way to Barrisdale Bay and the sea. On the approach to Barrisdale Bay I caught up Ita Emanuela Marsotto from Italy who said she was not feeling great, so we ran together and chatted for a while. Darren was well ahead by now and Louise and Richard were not too far behind. As we passed the bothy and a small primitive campsite as Barrisdale I was reminded of a long weekend I spent there on a solo back-packing trip 21 years years ago. I briefly stopped to gaze back across the bay at the mountain I climbed on that trip – the magnificent peak of Lahar Bheinn with it’s multiple ridges rising straight up out of Loch Hourn.
There were only about 5 miles of running to go before we reached camp at Kinloch Hourn, which on the map looks like an easy run along a shoreline path, but from memory I knew it was rough and twisty with plenty of rock and mud – just the thing everyone wants at the end of a tough day. At first I was too busy taking photos and enjoying the scenery and I missed the turn-off and had to back-track about a hundred metres at which point I was overtaken by the Swedish duo, Ted and Par, who were running very-strongly. The path was as tough and slow-going as I remembered and it seemed to take ages. By the time I reached the road-head at Kinloch Hourn I had left Ita and the others well-behind and I had passed the two Swedes who were now down to walking pace. It felt great to get into camp, and rest in such a beautiful place knowing I had finished strongly on the first of the big days. However as I took off my running shoes and socks and hobbled to the river for a cold wash I noticed a patch of skin just below my ankle was red-raw and my toes were very sore.
Day 3 – Kinloch Hourn to Achnashellach (42 miles, 2400m Ascent)
The Hardest Day
The route on day 3 began with a long five mile climb from sea-level up to 800m and over a rocky bealach, then contoured round the mighty Forcan Ridge and then a 5 mile descent down to into Glen Shiel. This was the highest point of the entire route and very exposed to wind and weather, except there wasn’t any – apart from a gentle chilly breeze it was thoroughly benign. I took the first section very steady and spent some time running/chatting with Louise Watson on the way up to the bealach and then with Gilliam Boogerd on the run down into Glen Shiel.
At sea-level Shiel Bridge was the first checkpoint of the day and strung out along the main road there were a few shops/hotels to pick up snacks and drinks from. I passed Paula Izerman and Mirjam Steunebrink (both from the Netherlands) enjoying ice-creams. It was getting quite warm and sunny and I was very tempted to go and buy one myself, but there was still a long way to go today and I wanted to get the flat road section out of the way as quick as possible and get onto the trails again. From Shiel Bridge we headed inland and after about 3 miles the road gave way to a path again and we began the second long climb of the day to the Bealach Na Sroine (524m). Where the route left the road I was joined by Stuart Macdonald, a strong runner from Glasgow who had finished the previous day in 7th position. We ran together for a good few miles during which we were overtaken by the leading pair of Marcus Scotney and Thomas Adam running together. A couple of minutes after they overtook us they came running back realising they had missed a not-so-obvious left turn in the path. Unlike some others that day they very quickly noticed their error and were back on track in no-time, which was handy since Stuart and I were about to make the same mistake! I tried following them at their pace to feel what it was like, but could not match them for very long and even when the gradient steepened and they walked for a bit I could not keep up with them and quickly got left behind. I gave up and Stuart caught me up and we ran together for a few miles at a lively but more sustainable pace. I felt like I recognised Stuart from a previous event, and after reeling off all the races we had both done over the last year or so we reckoned it must have been at the Tiree ultramarathon the previous September. The summit of the Bealach Na Sroine culminated in a mile or so of rather bleak plateau and then we descended steeply on the side of a deep gorge that took us past the Falls of Glomach, the most voluminous waterfall in Scotland.
Stuart had run on ahead by this point and I climbed down about 50m off route to a viewing platform to get a better look at the falls and take some photos. It was worth the extra effort to climb down then back up again, because despite the dry weather the falls were still mightily impressive. The race route followed a narrow path that clung on to a steep edge and required a little easy down scrambling in places. I passed Steven Burnside at this point and caught a glimpse of Stuart below. I had run out of water a while ago and as I approached the valley floor I was glad to finally replenish my soft-flasks from an easily accessible stream. After the steep downhill it was good to have a few miles of flat-ish double track on which to gain some easy miles, since we were only 20 miles into a 42 mile day. Not too far ahead I could see Richard Dreijer, so I used him as a target and caught up with him just after the second checkpoint of the day at the end of Loch na Leitreach where members of our wonderful support crew were there to record our progress. We were well-within the check-point cut-off time and happy with our progress, however I noticed an increasing soreness on the soles of my feet and around my ankles that was starting to get a little uncomfortable, but I just ignored it and ploughed on. In this remote glen we encountered a few sheep and ran quite close to a herd of deer that just stood and watched us in bemusement. At Iron Lodge we climbed north out of the Glen on a rougher single track up to a high point of 466m then followed an undulating route with many river and stream crossings, all of which were easy and each time the water helped cool my sore feet. There were two mandatory passage points on the map between which there were over 2 miles of tough trackless up-hill tussocky ground. Like every trackless section (of which there were many over the entire route) it felt like it was several times longer that it actually was on the map. Pavel Paloncy came powering past us using his poles to good effect – seeing him in action on awkward ground I can understand how he won the Spine race a couple of years ago.
This section also required some precise navigation. Richard and I were joined for a while by Con Bonner and our combined navigational skill enabled us to take as good a line as possible to the second passage point. Here there was a wire bridge to enable us to cross a river flowing out of Loch Calavie. The bridge was hidden from view until you were almost upon it and it felt good to know we were exactly on the race route given the extreme remoteness of the area we were in. The loch was a beautiful blue colour and there was a stretch of sandy beach. Con stopped and looking very tired sat on a rock declaring he would just stay here for a while – who could blame him it was a truly wonderful place to rest. Richard seemed keen to press on and I was worried about stiffening up, so we left Con behind and ran on ahead.
There followed a good 4 mile section of double track on which it was easy to hold a conversation. We talked about running and adventure pursuits we had both done. Richard has completed the Everest Marathon – not bad for someone from the Netherlands. We gradually caught up with a small group of runners and we all exchanged some encouraging words, then we hit a mile or so of trackless boggy tussocks before picking up a path at the Bearnais bothy. I was getting very hungry and this was the start of a 200m climb, but I had eaten all my easily accessible food and had to stop and take my pack off and rummage inside for spare food. I eventually found some fudge which I ate ravenously, and it gave me the boost I needed to walk/run up the hill to catch Richard just on the brow of the hill. When we reached our summit at about 645m and a most incredible view of the Torridon mountains to the north opened up giving us a pre-view of the wonders that lay ahead for tomorrow.
As we descended a steep rocky path we could see Ita who was moving more easily than us on the loose rocks. My feet were really painful by now which was made worse by the sharp rocky terrain. I knew damage had been done that would need some serious sorting out if I was going to be able to run properly again tomorrow. I knew I should have listened to the warning signs earlier and stopped to attend to them, but too late now it seemed better to press on since it was only about 3 miles to camp. When we reached the valley floor there were signs put up by the support crew to guide us into camp as our maps showed more than one route (because of potentially hazardous river crossings in very wet weather). The signs took us across several river channels, pebble beds, up a river bank, over a fence and finally through a churned-up muddy field to the day 3 finish line – as if 42 hard miles were not hard enough we had an obstacle course to finish!. After a short rest and by now the obligatory plate of chips I hobbled back over the obstacle course to the river to give my feet a good wash and assess the damage. On the outside of each foot just under the ankle bone a large patch of skin had worn off leaving the area red-raw. Several toes also had raw patches and blister on the end one of them. However my biggest concern was a large blister on the sole of my right foot that was painful to walk on. A lot of runners were still out on the course and the atmosphere in camp was quiet and subdued. It had been a hard day for everyone and I was certainly not the only one with damaged feet. I had a big feed and then heard the news about two of the faster runners who had been timed-out at checkpoint 1 after an enormous navigational error on the approach to Glen Shiel. I knew they must have been gutted to be out of the race, but they were not only ones, because only 73 of the original 95 would be still be in the race by the end of day 3. Considering the state of my feet and another 5 days and nearly 150 miles to go I was seriously worried about how much further I would be able to go before I would be forced to give up. After dinner I popped my head into the medical tent and asked for advice about a large blister on the sole of the foot. I was told if it had not burst then I should leave it alone overnight, then tomorrow morning apply a dressing and hold it in place by putting a strip of Kinseisology tape down the entire sole of the foot and up the ankle. As I departed the medical tent I noticed there was a runner wrapped in a sleeping bag and not looking too good. Despite being very tired I found it difficult to get to sleep; there was sporadic noise from camp as late runners arrived in and I found it hard to get in a comfortable sleeping position because my feet were so sore and my legs were aching all over – welcome to multi-day ultra-running!
Day 4 – Achnashellach to Kinlochewe (22 miles, 1400m Ascent)
An Afternoon Off
Day 4 was never going to be a real ‘rest day’, but on paper in terms of mileage and metres of ascent it looked like a half-day compared to day 3 and therefore would that not constitute an ‘afternoon off’? Well yes sort of, but only after an incredibly tough morning taking an awful long time to not run all that far.
The early morning ritual started as usual at about 5:30am, but today there was the added bonus of 30 minutes of foot repair and this would be a repeated every morning from now on until the finish and by day 8 my feet would be a patch-work quilt of blue K-tape. Prior to the event I could not understand why Kinseisology tape should be on the mandatory kit list given that I thought it was just for strapping up muscles as advised by physios. However I now know that it is an ideal substitute for skin that has been worn off, for keeping blisters in check and avoiding blisters in the first place. After breakfast we sadly said goodbye to one of our tent mates, Scott Clarke who arrived in late the previous night with badly blistered feet and decided he was unfit to continue today. The nearby convenience of Achnashellach railway station meant he could start the long journey home to recover without delay. It was a shame to see him go before we had really got to know him. Non-one was in a rush to start today and it was quieter than usual around the start area. I started about 8am and walked the first mile or so, just to get my muscles warmed up and my feet bedded in. Today I decided to change my running shoes from the well worn-in black pair of Salomon Speedcross I had worn on day 1-3 to my brand new spare pair of bright-blue Salomon Speedcross (with the standard insoles inside – I’ll not make that mistake again!). Even if there is limited practical benefit I thought I might at least get some psychological benefit from shiny new shoes. This tactic did not go unnoticed as throughout the day I got plenty of comments about the new-ness of my shoes and plenty of banter about not getting them dirty.
The route started with a long 5 mile climb up Coire Lair on a good rocky path to a bealach at 650m then a long descent over rough ground to a road crossing in Glen Torridon that also served as a checkpoint. Today we were running amongst the giant hills of Torridon with their magnificent red sandstone buttresses and quartzite tops – there was hardly a moment without a breathtaking view. There was a chilly breeze coming over the bealach, but from the checkpoint onwards it was pleasantly warm with blue skies and sunshine.
From the checkpoint we climbed again up between Liathach and Beinn Eighe on a good path then contoured round to Coire Mhic Fhearchair. When the weather is this good this corrie is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland (if not the world).
It was a place to linger for a little while, top-up the water bottles, eat a little food and take some photos. Angus MacArthur and Peter Wright caught up with me and we ran on together talking superlatives about the views. The next section was very rough and pathless and at the previous checkpoint everyone had been advised about not going all the way to the valley floor and instead the correct route is to contour round the base of Beinn Eighe.
With this in mind we contoured round the mountain, but after about half a mile we realized we were at least 100m too high and on increasingly precipitous terrain. After making a tricky descent down steep heather-clad terraces of sandstone covered in parts by slimy mud, we were mightily relieved to still be unscathed and back on the correct route. At this point we joined a small group of other runners (Heather Watson, Ian Prentice, Steven Burnside, Stuart Secker and Kevin Otto) and continued our traverse round the mountain at the correct height. From here to joining the path down to Kinlochewe does not look very far on the map and it is in fact no more than 3 miles, but it took forever. Navigating across path-less, lumpy, rock-strewn ground on the side of a mountain was kind of fun, but also painfully slow. Given our recent minor navigational fau-par I was determined to stick precisely to the correct route on the map, so as to appease the race director and just in case anyone back home was watching my tracker on the website.
The group stayed together and we were pretty much all using either map/compass or GPS which helped assure each other that we were following exactly the correct line. We found the path spot-on that would take us away from Beinn Eighe and put the rough stuff behind us. At this point we were able to do some ‘proper’ running and quickly spread out. However it was quite hot by now and the long descent to Kinlochewe was not easy, the path was covered in sharp quartzite rocks which were very uncomfortable on my feet. I arrived at the day 4 finish together with Stuart Secker at the entrance to the village hall. Our camp in Kinlochewe was beside the village hall and the nearby presence of a shop and pub was contributing to generally higher spirits in the camp than the day before. It was a sunny afternoon and an earlier finish with more time to chill-out and rest helped too as did the knowledge that we had now covered more than half the distance to Cape Wrath. There was no accessible river for washing today and the village hall facilities were off limits, but I was provided with a soothing bucket of cold water to wash my feet in. I resisted temptation to wander down to the pub for beer or food, or even to the village shop for ice-cream or a snack. Instead double portions of camp food and plenty of weak milky tea were enough to satisfy me. Over dinner I spoke to Stuart Macdonald and heard how he had made a whopping navigational error and ended up doing lots of extra miles, but still managed to get to the finish without being timed out. He was still given a 1.5 hour time penalty though for not following the correct route. John Gittins also made the same mistake, but was picked up by race safety crew in a car on a main road and so recorded a DNF. At this point I vowed to myself to keep a closer eye on the map and route. Despite my relative slowness (22 miles in over 7 hours!), I was happy with the day, because my feet had survived without much further damage and my running shoes still looked almost new.
Day 5 – Kinlochewe to Inverlael (27 miles, 1400m Ascent)
Back on Track
I think the shorter day and extra rest seemed to rejuvenate most of us, and for me I felt that as long as I kept the foot damage under control I now had a very good chance of finishing the race. It was another shorter day, but as ever there would be more tough pathless sections and unlike yesterday some river crossings as well. Many people started early and I was a little later than usual, but I was moving with much more enthusiasm than the day before and passed several slower runners on the long ascent to Lochan Fada (314m). It was cool and cloudy to start with, but as the morning went on it soon turned into a glorious sunny day. There was a good track for the first 7 miles, but as we left the Loch and turned north-east it was a hard pull up over pathless, lumpy, tussocky ground to a broad bealach (414m). It was another one of those sections were you really need to concentrate on the navigation to keep on the right line and found myself buddying-up with a small group that was moving at a similar pace.
We were now entering the Fisherfield, another one of Scotlands remotest areas (we had been reminded of this by Shane Ohly as we passed through the start). I pushed on ahead of the group as we descended by the side of a river and picked up a vague path that led to a crossing point before Loch an Nid (249m). Here I caught up with Frank Tschopp from Germany who is a professional photographer and all-round mountain man. He ran every day with a large backpack containing his photography gear, and although he was not fast, due to the weight he was carrying, he always looked strong and finished each day with ease. Without the big backpack I am sure he would have been right up there with the leaders, but he seemed very content to enjoy the scenery and his photography at his own pace. As we ran a bit together he told me about his training regime that involves running up and down mountains in Switzerland carrying a heavy-pack. I was feeling good and it was easy running following the river along the valley floor, so I pushed on alone and eventually caught up with Richard Dreijer at a river crossing. We were lucky with having so many dry days that made crossing these rivers easy, but I am sure it would have been a different story after several days of rain. We were caught up by Stuart Macdonald and ran together admiring the stunning views of An Teallach that were un-folding as the path zig-zagged it’s way up over a hills to a high point of 409m.
Stuart forged on ahead before we descended the other side of the hill down to a checkpoint on the roadside. After crossing the road we passed a farm and started a long climb up another hillside on an intermittent path. The views back to An Teallach were amazing. I had caught up with Ita and Ian Prentice by this time and we took some great photos with An Teallach in the background.
I forged on ahead and near the top of the hill (413m) I was gradually caught up by Ian White, who was currently 4th overall in the race, a position he maintained all the way to Cape Wrath. He is a strong hill-runner and lives in the peak district although he is originally from Australia. We were both running well and shared the last few miles of the day together. As the path zigzagged across a rocky plateau we were treated to fabulous view of the hills to the east that we would be running through the next day.
The path descended sharply down into the valley and eventually we could see an array of blue tents below that was our camp for the night, strategically positioned next to a graveyard. I arrived at the finish feeling strong and happy knowing I was definitely back on track to complete the journey to Cape Wrath and there was also the potential to improve on my overall placing if I continued running strong over the next 3 days. On arrival we were treated to ice-cream and ice-lollies, which was just what we needed after another warm day of running. Again there was an up-beat atmosphere in camp following a shorter running day and the extra rest-time that came with it. There were now also less than 100 miles to go, but the next two days were going to be big ones, so we all made the most of the extra rest time now. It was a lovely peace-full setting for a camp with a good view up the glen to Loch Broom and Ben More Coigach in the distance. However the nearby river Broom was quite muddy and not that great for washing, but at least it helped cool the feet.
Day 6 – Inverlael to Inchnadamph (45 miles, 1400m Ascent)
The Longest Day
I awoke early to the sound of a rather noisy cuckoo and then a rather noisy camp. Today was the longest day in terms of distance, but with less difficult terrain it was not expected to be as hard or long as day 3, but still no-one was taking chances and a lot of people wanted to get off the start line early. I held back a bit to wait for the queue to die down. As we went through the start area in small groups Shane advised us that we would be running through a very remote area again, but he also informed that we would receive a beeping noise and a message to our trackers if they spotted us heading seriously off route down the wrong glen or up the wrong hill. I walk/ran the first few hundred metres to warm up and chatted with Steve Arden and Emily Ravenhill, a couple who had been running together for the whole race. On the first evening Steve and I recognised each other from the Engadine ski-marathon in Switzerland back in 2011. It was good to meet up again in a different setting and talk about what we had both been up to since the Engandine. After short section of tarmac road the route joined a forest track that climbed steeply via a series of switchbacks up through Inverlael forest. The track gave way to a path and then the path disappeared completely at about 500m as the route traversed the gentle slopes of Meall Dubh. There were now 5 miles of lumpy ground to cover with plenty of peat hags, tussocks and stream crossings to negotiate before we picked up another path at the head of Glendouchery. I had plenty of company from other runners as we each tried to find the best line over awkward ground. To the south-east we could see low clouds tumbling over the rocky cliffs of Seana Bhraigh that looked like a giant waterfall.
Steven Burnside pointed out a low circular ruined wall that looked like the remains of some ancient remote settlement. Too much gazing around and not concentrating on where I was placing my feet resulted in a fall. Amazingly it would be my only fall in the entire 8 day journey, but I rolled my left ankle. I yelped in pain, got up and did the usual hopping dance that everyone seems to do when they go over on their ankle. As the pain eased off, I hobbled onwards the ankle gradually relaxing back to near normal. When I finally reached the path at Loch an Daimh I was glad to be back on an even runnable surface, so I made up for lost time and got past a few runners. The route was now on good double track for the next 25 miles as we moved away from the hills and followed broad gently undulating glens on the way to the hills of Assynt in the north and our next campsite. This was prime salmon fishing country and the route followed the river Einig to a checkpoint at Oykel Bridge – roughly the half-way mark for the day. I was looking forward to reaching the checkpoint, because of the proximity to a hotel and the opportunity for a cold drink. On the way to the checkpoint I was passed by Marcus Scotney (the race leader) I managed to keep up with him for a few hundred yards as we exchanged a few words of encouragement. Soon after I was joined by Stuart Macdonald and Ian White, and we ran together all the way to Oykel Bridge. We popped in to the hotel for a quick can of coke and a bag of crisps. In the bar we met Mick Cooper who had just downed a half pint of Guinness and Paula Ijzerman who as always was wearing very bright and colourful running gear. After leaving the hotel we turned north up Glen Oykel on a long straight monotonous track that was made worse by the relentless heat of a sunny afternoon from which there was little shade.
Eventually we reached a small detour marked on the map that would take us a short way up the hillside and along through a forest. The turn off was not easy to spot as there did not appear to be a path and all that remained of the trees were stumps and a loose scattering of branches littered the ground. I was with Mick and Paula and then Stuart appeared having earlier run on ahead and then had to back-track when he realised he had missed the turn off. After running for 3 miles through a forest on the map that no longer existed we reached the pretty Loch Ailish and with 10 miles to go we got a view of the rugged hills of Assynt looming up ahead through which we would need to run to get to Inchnadamph. As the track gave way to a single path we began a gradual ascent following the river Oykel to its source in an vast amphitheatre of remote peaks. As the path disappeared altogether Mick pulled away into the distance – he always looked uncomfortable on easy surfaces, but on the rough ground he could really fly.. The rocky munros of Conival and Ben More Assynt loomed large above us as we left the river Oykel behind and ascended steeply to a bealach at over 500m. There was an instruction printed on our map telling us to stay high and keep away from the river gorge on the other side of the bealach. I heeded this warning and found a thin path that traversed a steep slope above the gorge. This place felt wild and remote and not a place I’d like to be in during bad conditions with the mist down. It was yet another reminded of how blessed we were with the weather. I ran passed Andrew Clarke and Marcus Hanford while they paused for refreshments by the stream. Then from almost nowhere, Ted and Par, the two Swedes appeared behind me having climbed strongly to the bealach, but I felt a surge of energy knowing that it was almost all downhill from here to the day 6 finish line. The path faded away and the route descended steeply over rough ground, but I double-checked the map and read the terrain to ensure I took the best possible line down to the right of the gorge to pick up the path that would follow the river all the way to Inchnadamph.
The gradient lessened and I ran along a twisty single path amongst wonderful scenery with the peaks of Quinag looming large on the other side of Loch Assynt. Running swiftly despite having 40+ miles in my legs I arrived at the campsite having thoroughly enjoyed the last 10 miles of the day. After resting and plenty of food my legs stiffened up and I hobbled around camp with a slightly swollen ankle. I gave my feet a good soaking in a bucket of cold water (now referred to as the Wrath Bath!). The water was kindly fetched from the loch over 50 yards away by our ever-helpful support crew. The campsite was situated beside an old Kirk and another graveyard! The midges were out and we were treated to a great sunset. I slept well knowing that despite rolling my ankle and feeling very sore I had run a fine ‘longest day’ and caught up a few places overall in the race.
Day 7 – Inchanadamph to Kinlochbervie (38 miles, 1600m Ascent)
Summits and sea lochs
Today was shorter in distance that the previous day, but not by much and there would more ascent and a long road section to finish, so I reckoned it was going to be just as hard. But the atmosphere in camp at breakfast was very positive as we knew once we had got through day 7 nothing would stop us from getting to the ‘Cape’ on the final day. Day 7 began with a 4 mile climb on a reasonable path up to a 600m bealach between the peaks of Glas Bheinn and Ben Uidhe. I started the day run/walking with Andrew Clarke who was currently (and would finish the race) in the top ten. We had a lot in common, with him working in the oil industry and my background in geology, so we had a good conversation. Although we had never met before we also learned that we had also both cross-country skiied at the same mountain lodge at Kivitvatn in Norway – small world! We descended steeply for 2 miles on a rough path down into Glen Coul from where we got a view of the Eas a’ Chual waterfall – at 658ft the tallest waterfall in Britain. But with all the recent dry weather it was more of a trickle than a waterfall and Frank Tschopp was not very impressed. But I know from previous visits to this area this waterfall is mightily impressive after a lot of rain, but on this occasion I was happy to take the dry weather. The next 8 miles or so contoured around the fjord-like inlets of sea lochs on intermittent, but surprisingly good tracks for such a remote area.
I was now running alongside Peter Fairhurst and we would run together for a large part of day 7. Peter was one of the unfortunate runners who went way off course and was timed out of the race on day 3. He lives near Paris and does a lot of his running on the athletics track competing in world masters events. He is a very strong runner, but does not get to run out in the hills much and found some of the mountain navigation to be harder than expected. Like me, Peter is also a cross-country skier and has completed some of the same ski races as myself. Like every other runner in the race he was interesting to talk to and helped make the long hard climb up to the summit of Ben Dreavie (510m) pass by more quickly. We were now about halfway (19 miles) through day 7. During the whole race we ran over many bealachs (passes), but rarely took in any actual summits, so this was a rare treat and although it’s not the highest peak in the area the views did not disappoint.
As we left the start at Inchnadamph we were warned there was a risk of a penalty or even disqualification if we did not follow the exact route off the summit. This was partly for safety reasons, because in taking a short-cut we could end up going over the steep cliffs that lined the northern side of the mountain. The descent was pathless over awkward humply ground, so I took a couple of compass bearings to ensure we accurately negotiated a dog-leg down the hillside and then across a line of hidden lochans and boggy ground to reach a path. Ever since day 3 I was almost always running with the map in one hand, so I could regularly check I was still on the correct route especially when paths faded in and out and there were twists and turns to be made. The route took us round Ben Stack and down to a bridge at Lockstack Lodge where we were greeted by our support crew waiting at checkpoint 1 to record our progress. Around this point Peter and I were joined by Ian White and the three of us ran together for about 7 or 8 miles across slow awkward ground following a vague intermittent path. It was another hot afternoon and several stream crossings supplied cold water to help cool us down.
The path improved as we approached checkpoint 2 at Rhiconich where our support crew where waiting to guide us onto the B601. At the checkpoint Peter stretched his long legs and sped off into the distance. I re-filled my water bottles from a stream and plodded onto the road joining Ian for a tough 4 miles of tarmac that would lead us to Kinlochbervie and the finish of day 7. It was very hot and the road became a monotonous up-hill grind at an incline that was still runnable, but tough on the legs after covering over 34 miles. With a sea loch on one side and a patchwork of crofts on the other there is no route to Kinlochbervie from the south other than by the road we were running on. However each time we briefly stopped and looked back we were rewarded with a truly awesome view of the hills we had run through earlier in the day.
Eventually we reached the top of the hill and were rewarded with a steep leg-wobbling descent down a narrow road to the day-7 finish line in front of Kinlochbervie village hall. Our tents were behind the village hall on the edge of a loch. Initially I just flopped down in the entrance of the tent and chatted with Andrew Biffen who had finished a while ago and was busy repairing his feet. The loch was close-by but hard to get down to, but worth it for the cooling effect on the feet. This was now the last time each of us would perform our various post-run evening routines that enabled us to run another day. I felt both relief and a little sadness that the journey would be over tomorrow. The atmosphere in camp was up-beat and each runner that arrived over the line was tired but happy in the knowledge that having got this far they would be very unfortunate not to able to run, walk or crawl the final 16 mile to Cape Wrath lighthouse tomorrow. After dinner for the first time since the evening of day 1 it rained, which was a timely reminder of how lucky we had been with the weather and also a signal that all good things including ultra-races up the west coast of Scotland must eventually come to an end. After retiring to my sleeping bag I dosed off and was soon woken by the arrival in the tent of Gilliam who flopped down in the central area after taking nearly 14 hours to finish the day. He was last to arrive in our tent and it was great to know all our tent-mates had successfully completed the day. There followed plenty of laughs and banter amongst my fellow occupants of tent number 10. After a while I poked my head out of the sleeping compartment and I could see what looked like a pair of partly shredded pink cauliflowers sitting on a kit-bag – these were Gilliam’s feet. After out tent quieted down and I managed to remove the images of the feet from my mind I descended into what was a pretty good night’s sleep, and for once getting up in the middle of the night to hobble out of the tent for a pee while being chased by a hungry swarm of midges did not seem quite as irritating as on previous nights.
Day 8 – Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath (16 miles, 700m Ascent)
To The Edge of The World
It was a damp misty start on day 8 and it seemed to take me a longer to get myself sorted out than on previous mornings. 16 miles sounded like hardly any distance at all – barely half a day so there was no need to rush. About 8am for a final time I handed over my kit-bag, had my day-kit checked, picked up my tracker, listened to Shane’s words of advice for the day, ‘dibbed out’ and headed off towards Cape Wrath. I was accompanied by Andrew Clarke and Mick Cooper, and we set off at a reasonable pace along the edge of the loch and then on to a small road. We passed John Minta who was hobbling along (at some pace) with aid of two walking poles, obviously in great discomfort, but still managing to smile, as was everyone was on day 8 no matter what their level of pain. After about 4 miles we went through the only checkpoint for the day at the car park for Sandwood Bay for which the cut-off time was 10am. The path was good and pretty flat, so it was easy for running. I took plenty of photos of other runners and the emerging views of the rugged coastline. It was about 4 miles from the checkpoint to the beach, but the well-made path and a scattering of tents in the sand dunes made me realise this beach is not so magically remote or secluded as I thought it might be. The beach was soft and it required an increase in effort from the legs to run along.
The second 8 miles of the route was a lot tougher that the first 8 miles. The route took us across a wide shallow river and then off the beach and directly up a steep slope onto the cliff-top. By now Mick had pulled well ahead of me and Andrew was somewhere behind, so I found myself on my own as I ran through the mist, but soon caught up with a loose group of dispersed runners.
Just after another river crossing I caught up with Louise Staples, whom I had run with for a large part of day 2. She had slipped on a rock and fallen in the river, but despite a bit of a soaking was fortunately unhurt. As we headed inland from the cliff-top with no path to follow and a series of feature-less tussocky hills to cross this felt much more like what the final stage of Cape Wrath Ultra should be like rather than the relatively ‘touristy’ feel of Sandwood Bay. The mist came down and I was alone, so I navigated by map and compass to keep on the correct route. It was easy to veer off course here and end up on the wrong hill and have to back-track (as some runners did). As I headed over the last summit the mist cleared and I was glad to see Paula up ahead and we ran together for a couple of miles. She used her GPS and I used my compass to ensure we joined up with the track from which it would only be just over a mile to the lighthouse that marked the finish of the entire journey.
On reaching the track Paula told me not to wait for her, so I ran on ahead. I wanted to finish with style and show I still had plenty of energy left in case tectonic movements overnight had added a few extra miles to the north of Scotland that were not on the map. I also realised that I had not been passed by Marcus Scotney yet and it would be good to arrive at the finish before the race leader on at least one day out of the eight. Because the track traverses around the side of a hill you can’t actually see the lighthouse until you are almost upon it, but as soon as I saw it I broke out into a sprint to the finish. There were just a couple of support crew there and a few runners who had already finished. The support crew had only just arrived (due to delays in the boat crossing from Durness), so the finish line gantry had not been set up yet. The first group of runners actually arrived before any of the support crew, but the crew had phoned ahead and the man who runs the small café at the lighthouse recorded their numbers and finish times. No more than a couple of minutes after I arrived Marcus Scotney also finished, so my sprint at the end was highly justified.
After a mug of hot tea, crisps and chocolate in the lighthouse café I walked to the cliff-edge and gazed northwards to the endless expanse of sea; it very-much felt like I was standing on the ‘end of the world’.
I had time for my finisher photo to be taken by Ian Corless (there was a proper finish line set up by now) and cheer more runners in before it was my turn to board the battered old mini-bus.
It was a slow bus journey along 3 miles of very rough rocky track to the Kyle of Durness, from which we had a short ferry crossing over the water. We were then picked up by another bus and driven the short distance to the campsite at Durness. It was wonderful to have a hot shower and remove as best I could 8 days of sweat and dirt. However peeling off various layers of K-tape (and some skin in the process) was not so nice.
The sun was out, a gentle breeze was keeping the midges at bay and gradually more runners arrived at camp. A large group of us walked down to the nearby hotel bar and for some well earned pints. The bar normally shuts on a Sunday afternoon, but with so many thirsty runners it stayed open. In the evening we were bussed over to the village hall for a buffet dinner and prize-giving where one by one we walked or hobbled up to the stage to be presented our finisher’s medals by Shane Ohly.
Time to Go Home
I woke up early with a slightly sore ‘hangover’ head, but soon got on with the routine of re-taping my feet and sorting myself out. As usual I breakfasted on a big plate of baked beans, scrambled egg and brown bread with a big mug of milky tea after which I felt like I was ready for another day’s running. But not this time, after packing our kit bags for one last time we boarded a bus back to Fort William. On arriving later in the day at the Nevis Centre, from which we began our journey little over a week ago, some of us remarked (me included) how it felt more like a month than a week since we were last there. I guess it was because the focus, intensity and bodily effort meant we really ‘lived’ every minute of the previous 8 days to the full.
A Few Statistics
- Out of 95 starters 59 finished the race (by completing all 8 days within the daily cut-off time)
- Race winner and 1st male: Marcus Scotney in 41 hours 40 minutes
- 18th position overall Phil Humphries in 62 hours 23 minutes
- 24th overall (1st Female) Ita Emanuela Marzotto in 66 hours 53 minutes
- 59th overall (final finisher) Luke Robertson in 88 hours 50 minutes
- Approximate Total Distance: 400km (248 miles)
- Approximate Total Height Gain: 11,200m (36,745 feet)
- Average Daily Distance: 50km (31 miles)
- Average Daily Height Gain: 1,400m (4,593 feet)
- Average Trail Type: 20% Trackless, 38% Single Track, 30% Double Track, 12% Road Tarmac
A breakdown for each day stage with my performance compared to overall race winner:
|Name||Stage Position||Stage Time||%||Overall Race Time||%|
- The event itself, plus the level of organization was amazing and exceeded my expectations. I had never done a race organised by Ourea Events before, but I was very impressed and will certainly enter more. Also, I cannot thank the dedicated group of volunteer support crew enough – they all worked extremely hard to give all the competitors the best opportunity to complete the journey and finish the race safely and I never heard a single grumble from anyone throughout the entire event.
- A big thank you to everyone (Elly, Krista, Tracey, Jo, Gordon, Donald, the Mackenzie-Brodies and ERN) who sent me messages during the event via the Ultra Mail service. It really did make a difference to receive some encouraging words of support from afar at the end of each day.
- After the event Shane (event organizer) and Gary (race director) commented they had only expected about one third of competitors to finish the race, but with 59 out of 95 starters finishing that estimate was well exceeded. The fine weather certainly helped, and when discussing this with other runners after the event, we were all of a similar opinion in reckoning that if there had been a lot of bad weather the number of finishers may have been 20 or less.
- I am glad I did it, and I enjoyed almost all of it. A couple of weeks after finishing the race Ourea Events offered all finishers of the Cape Wrath Ultra a guaranteed place in their sister event “The Dragons Back Race”. I have since accepted the offer and in May 2017 I will be racing for 5 days down the mountainous spine of Wales and no doubt meeting up again with many of my friends from the CWU.