Posted on: 23 Jun 2016
I’ve been thinking about writing this since the day after the race finished but until now the feelings weren’t well formed enough to put into words, however the longer I leave it the less sharp the detail gets. I don’t think I’ll be able to write a day by day account of my Cape Wrath run with accurate descriptions of the route, my version is more a story of how I managed my way through this incredible landscape.
Where to start is not easy, perhaps best to begin with a little back ground before tackling the Cape Wrath post mortem!Most of the regular Buzzers are very aware of this bit but for those who aren't it provides a little sub-text.
I only began running relatively recently, six years ago at the age of 42 I took on the gauntlet of beating a long standing McArthur family marathon time. Uncle Neil had run the Aberdeen marathon in the 80’s and clocked a 3.33, being a competitive family the challenge went out to the rest of us the go faster. Half a dozen bottles of decent champagne were on offer to the first to beat his time. Over a boozy family meal that summer I vowed to run a marathon and to beat 3.33. I’d not run since being at school and my first 2 mile “training run” a couple of days later highlighted the scale of the challenge. Running 2 miles was not pretty, 26.2 felt way out of reach. It’s incredible though how mind and body can begin to strengthen and work in harmony if you persevere and after only a matter of a month or so I was beginning to feel a real sense of progress and reward.
I eventually ran 3.17 and laid down a time of my own for the next generations of runners in the family. The champagne tasted sweet.
I’m fairly sure I could bring that 3.17 down a bit but to be honest I was getting bored of running. When I did run it was on tarmac and it was always with an eye on my watch to try and run a consistent or faster pace. I began to ask the question,” do I really want to keep working hard to shave another few minutes of my marathon time?” - the answer was a resounding “NO!”
In the Autumn of 2014 I ran the Snowdon Marathon with the Realbuzz legends, a race chosen because it was not a standard road marathon, there would be no PB, there was a renewed sense of excitement because of this.
During that marathon I discovered a different way of running, the climb and descent through Pen y Pass was exhilarating, I chatted to other runners, I ate fruit cake from a table outside someone’s house, I took in the spectacular scenery. The final 5 miles takes you up 800m from Waunfawr followed by a fantastic 2 mile drop back down to the finish in Llanberis, those 5 miles were probably the catalyst for my Cape Wrath entry.The evening was then spent with the finest company and we drank with the thirst of the righteous. Its an event that I've repeated since and will again be there this October for more of the same.
I think I found a way of running that fulfilled me in ways that road running doesn’t. I began to seek out trails and places to run off road, my dog became my running partner and instead of doing interval or speed sessions I would just go and run over Strensall common with Pip for an hour and come back far happier!
The Cape Wrath seed was planted by chance, I was given a book about trail running for Christmas in 2014, in the section about Scotland it briefly mentions a Cape Wrath walking route which could perhaps be run. I’ve wanted to experience the North West wilderness of Scotland for many years and the idea of running through it had an immediate and very strong appeal. The notion of this challenge stayed with me and one day I Googled “ running Cape wrath trail” – the timing was very fortunate, The Cape Wrath Ultra site popped up onto my computer screen, the race had been announced but not much more. I duly signed up for email notifications and the day that entries opened I was on the website at 9am putting my name down. Putting an event like that onto your horizon gives you a sudden focus and motivation to become as best that you can to face the challenge that you’ve accepted, it makes you ask questions of yourself that you and only you are capable of answering. I had a year to make myself into a multi day ultra runner, just like running a 3.33 marathon had done a few years earlier it felt way out of reach but I knew that I could change that. My countdown blog on Realbuzz began a year before the event and the encouragement and inspiration that I gained from so many of you gave me the all important belief that I could complete such a distance.
Only a couple of months after signing up I ruptured two discs in my lower back, a major set back , I couldn’t even put my shoes and socks on and walking was pretty much out the question some days! Through physio and patient rehab I was able to start running again towards the end of October, I was very cautious to begin with and still had significant sciatic pain down the back of my left leg so running was slow and on the flat to begin with. By December there was further improvement and over the New Year holiday I took to the trails again up on the Cheviot in the Scottish borders, I had a week of running each day and at the end of it I was feeling happier and more confident about being able to take on the CWU, for a while it had felt like it was slipping away. In January via the Cape Wrath participants Facebook page I met Alex Reilly , I’d noticed that he also lived in York so messaged him to see if he fancied meeting up for a run. Tuesday evening became our regular slot and Alex ( far more experienced than I ) really helped me to springboard my recovery and also to make me realise that I needed to work a lot harder for the following 5 months if I was going to have a chance of success at CW. My mindset began to change and I really started to build a determination not to fail and to do all I could to improve my chances of being able to complete the Cape Wrath course. That was my one and only goal at that stage, over a route that long and that unpredictable completion was my target. And so it was for the following months that I trained, I read and I bought and tested new shoes and kit. As the day drew closer the magnitude of things started to concern me and the last minute demons of self doubt began to creep in, with something this big I assume we were all probably feeling the same and I took solace in that as I packed my dry-bag.
I travelled up to Fort William on the sleeper train, there were 6 or 7 other runners onboard and by chance my cabin mate was a fellow Cape Wrath runner Marcus Hanford. It was great to be able to settle the nerves a little by chatting with another competitor. Marcus and I seemed to share very similar outlooks on the race and he was perfect company, I didn’t think I’d sleep much but the rhythm of the train made for a pretty relaxed nights kip.
A monsoon seemed to be raging in Fort William when we arrived, I sat in Morrison’s café for breakfast with some other runners and we grimly watched the rain hammer against the windows as we carbed up on full breakfasts. I began to question my kit a little , wondering if the OMM softshell would be up to 8 days of torrential rain. At registration that day the reality of the situation took full hold. For a year the Cape Wrath Ultra had been an imposing date on the calendar, slightly abstract as a concept but now it was actually happening.
When we attended the briefing I finally got to see the entire cast of runners and organisers assembled for the first time. There was huge comfort in that, what had been an almost entirely solo pursuit for a 12 months had now become a collaborative venture. I knew that the other 95 runners all had the same dreams and fears, they had put themselves through similar regimes and done the hard miles too, it was uplifting to be in the company of others who had an understanding of all of that. I suppose that as inaugural CW runners we all have a great deal in common, although from different backgrounds, classes, countries and with differing levels of experience there was a palpable common ground that had resulted in us all being there in the Nevis Centre at that point. If we drew Venn diagrams for each competitor I’m guessing that most would overlap somewhere. With that said and judging by the talks given by Shane, Gary and others from the volunteer and support team I already had confidence that I was in fine company, that I could trust each and every person in the room - that’s a rare feeling.
That night I made the most of a final long soak in the bath and a night in a comfy double bed, once again sleep was better than expected and after another big breakfast I packed and joined everyone else for the walk to the ferry. It was an exiting moment as the ferry pulled away from the jetty and we made the short trip across to Camusnagaul on the North side of the loch, it really did feel like the first part of the long journey.
Day one of the race looked to my untrained eye like the easiest of the 8 days but that didn’t mean I was feeling complacent ! After an unexpected cup of tea and then some group photos there was a countdown and then we finally began running.
I felt an enormous sense of relief during that first mile, after all the things that could have gone wrong I felt extremely fortunate to be setting off on this incredible journey Northwards through Scotland in good spirits and good health. After a few miles of road running I found myself running with Steven Burnside from Inverness, I find the miles tick by if you’re in good company and Steven was certainly good company. We stuck together until the finish of the fist day. I have to admit that my memory of the fine details of the route is hazy, I do remember following the Cona River and that as the mileage increased the terrain became a little more challenging and the scenery more open and rugged as we headed towards Glenfinnan. Navigation was pretty straightforward, Steven was using his GPS like a pro and we stopped and conferred a couple of times to make sure that we were doing the right thing, towards the end of the route we did spot a runner heading off on the wrong track so we called him back. I was pretty amazed and a bit worried that my 3.30 for the 23 miles had put me in 14th place overall. This was not in the plan and I was concerned that we’d perhaps gone a bit too fast considering what still lay ahead, however both Steve and I agreed that the pace had felt right and we weren’t really pushing it. It was good to be in camp for the first time and with plenty of time to get accustomed to Tent 6 and properly meet my tent mates.
Our travelling village was made up of 8 man Berghaus tents, a food tent, communal dining tent , medical tent and the organisers HQ which we entered and exited each morning and evening to pick up our tracker, receive a briefing and dib in and out. There were even a row of potaloos, I was expecting something a little more primitive!
After scoffing my first plate of chips and flapjack I sat with my feet in the river for 10 minutes and gave myself a wash down and then changed into warm dry clothes. I picked up my first batch of Ultra Mail from race HQ and was really boosted by the messages from friends and family who were tracker watching back home. I remember being in my sleeping bag that first night checking the next day route on the map and feeling very happy that I was there and relishing what was to come. The messages that I received from my Realbuzz mates were truly the most uplifing moments of the day and they really helped me to keep a focus on the job, I'll always be in your debt for the kindness and thought that you put into those words. Thank you!
Day two began with a routine that was to be repeated each day. Wake around 5.30am. Tape toes. Put on clean socks ( inner and outer pair ) . Select right dry kit for the day. Pack day bag with food pack for that day. Check bag for mandatory kit. Check GPS + phone battery life. Eat scrambled egg/bread/porridge/drink tea. Teeth. Toilet. Re-pack dry bag and drop it off. 7.30 pick up tracker. check route on map. Briefing from Shane. Dib and off.
I started day 2 on my own, off and under the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct climbing slowly along a good 4x4 track onto a trackless climb. And so began 9 hours and 14 minutes of running ( well, not all running ! ), day 2 a 35 mile route that finished at the end on of a seemingly endless narrow track along Loch Beag and finished at camp in Kinloch Hourn. I’d found the day hard at times, however what I began to learn was that for every hardship there seemed to come a reward. A tough climb gave you an amazing view a long slog over trackless bog gave you the satisfaction of difficult miles overcome. The most gratifying feeling was that each forward movement that you made was taking you towards your goal, the Cape Wrath lighthouse. I used the image of the lighthouse that I’d only seen in photographs before as a mental carrot. I really wanted to experience seeing it for real and moving towards it at the end of the journey. There were some real high points through Knoydart on day 2, the remoteness of the route started to become very apparent, this was what drew me to this challenge and I began to really feel the sense of isolation at points during the day. The descent into Barrisdale gave me a real thrill, I let gravity do its thing and a small group of us threw a little caution to the wind as we picked our way down the broken path, It was hard to keep the smile from my face. Although I have very little experience of technical descending I really love this aspect of trail running, a level of concentration needed that occupies both mind and body in such a unique way. There is a child like joy in running downhill, there are of course obvious risks but the mind tries to mitigate these by firing messages into feet and legs that somehow respond just in time allowing you to pick your line and foot placements with almost unconscious decision making. It’s with relief that you hit even ground and allow the mind and body to find a calmer rhythm once again.
There were also some negatives to the day as well, around mile 30 I passed Gwynn Stokes, tent mate and top runner. Gwynn was having a bad day by his standards, he was feeling really ill and finding it hard to carry on. Seeing another runner struggle brought home the very real possibility of failure that could of course be due to any number of reasons. Seeing Gwynn like this had quite an affect on me and I was pleased to finish a long day feeling pretty good but a little rocked.
That night long after I’d eaten and washed I was checking the route for day 3 when Jim Frondorf one of our American tent mates returned. We could all see that he was not in a good way. Little was said but unfortunately Jim retired from the race that evening. The trails were proving to be a little too demanding and not what he’d expected. Losing a tent mate so early on re-enforced what I’d been thinking about the fragility of success earlier on and this played on my mind ahead of the 45miles of day 3.
Long before the event Day 3 had been highlighted as the crux day. A 42 mile rote through Knoydart, Kintail and Wester Ross with 2400m of ascent and significant trackless sections meaning navigation and making check points on time would likely be an issue too. The mood at breakfast was perhaps a little more tense, minds focussed on the day that lay ahead of us. I’m generally a fairly positive and determined person, if I set my mind to do something then I want to do it well and I tried to be as calm as I could in advance of a day that I knew would test me. The tent was fairly quiet that morning as we packed and prepared, most were off early, I hung back just a little making final kit checks etc. I was last to leave Tent 6 and before I set out I took a few moments to mentally prepare myself for what lay in wait, I set off on my own again but I had with me a renewed determination that felt stronger than it had before. I realised that I had the extreme luxury of being able to give this day and the rest of the race my total attention and commitment. Nothing else was in my way, no other duties or deadlines, no work, no cooking, no family matters, no emails, no ringing phone, no distractions or responsibilities – just myself and the miles to complete. That was a hugely liberating moment and I really enjoyed setting out through Knoydart and onto the exceptional 800m climb up to the Saddle, I felt a massive sense of freedom alone in those wide open spaces. The weather was once again perfect and I counted my blessings knowing that this day would have been so much harder in low cloud and rain. Starting a little later meant that I passed quite a few up and over the saddle, it was always nice to chat a little with other runners and the camaraderie during the week was one of the highlights for me, each and every runner( & support crew ) was an outstanding person.
Just after checkpoint 1 I caught up with Steve once again and we were to remain together for the most of the remaining 30 miles of the day. I think we both experienced some low points during those miles. I know Steve was suffering and he stopped at the wire bridge to address his feet and take a rest. Con Bonner was chilled out on a sandy sun baked beach on the shore of the Loch looking at peace with the world and telling me all he was missing was a G&T ! While Steve stopped here I continued alone, I passed Mick Cooper just before the track ended and we entered boggy ground on the approach to Bearnais Bothy. This is where I made a stupid navigational error, not seeing the bothy I headed too far east and ploughed on deeper into the bogland . It probably only took 10minutes for me to realise that I was off course but 10 minutes in the wrong direction over sapping terrain is disheartening. I could now see the bothy in the far distance and adjusted my course. The ground was very unforgiving there were huge peat hags and unpredictable brackish pools were between me and the bothy. It was a low point and I realised I was hungry and thirsty too so sat for a while, ate, drank and gathered some perspective. The flapjack and rest lifted my spirits, feeling a little rejuvenated I made my way across the rest of the bog and over the river to the bothy, Mick was long gone and I estimated that I last a good 25 minutes but I’d made a vow with myself not to let that affect me and concentrated on completing the rest of the route without a similar mishap. As luck would have it on the ascent after the bothy I once again caught Steve, we finished the day together taking in spectacular views across Sgurr Na Feartaig before steeply descending towards Achnashellach to the camp.
I have to admit that at 42 miles it was the longest that I’ve ever run in a day, the fact that I’d made it back and legs, body and mind all felt in decent shape gave me a boost and confidence to carry with me for the remaining 5 days. There was a sour note to follow though: when I got back to Tent 6 I discovered that our tent mate Darren had taken a wrong bearing off the Saddle and timed out at CP 1. Although I’d only know Darren a few days but we had bonded as you do in these situations, I felt enormous sympathy and sadness for him. It cast a dark shadow over the day for me and I have huge respect for the way he dealt with the disappointment with both dignity and some surprising good humour, I doubt wether I would have been able to muster similar attitude. Sadly Ian from our tent also timed out on the day, he too took this with good grace, credit to both men as they stayed part of the event and made the run to the lighthouse on day 8. The humour within our tent and from fellow competitors was such important fuel for me. Without being able to laugh at some of the situations we found ourselves in it would have left a difficult void. Alex, Darren, Gwynn, Kevin, Ian and Freddy all provided moments of wit and hilarity in the tent which constantly uplifted the spirits. The same can be said from Louise W, Lillian, Con,Rod, Gilliam, Stuart and so many others in camp and out on the hills, moments of laughter made for many happy memories during my week.
After a 42 mile day it’s easy to be complacent about a mere 22 miles! Day 4 provided maybe the most dramatic and memorable scenic highlights of the week for me. Although “only” 22 miles much of the terrain was trackless and rocky, particularly over the second half of the route and it was no easy day. I think I will have life lasting memories of the climb and views from Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair, looking over to the dramatic monuments of Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair was a stunning moment. There’s a photo that Ian Corless took of me at that location, - standing at the great corrie below Triple Butress he has caught the slightly battered face of a tired 48 year old man with a child-like look of pure wonder in his eyes.
Just after this photo was taken I made my second navigational cock up in as many days. we had been warned to drop down after the corrie and contour round maintaining our height for some distance. Unfortunately I did not make this descent early enough and found myself along with Phil Humphries and Peter Wright at a level far too high. We could see runners way down below on the flat floor of the valley and we needed to make a decision as how to join them. We had to be very careful as the consequences of a slip were severe, the drops were almost vertical in places and there were only boulders and rocks below. I was glad that I was not alone during the 15 minutes that it probably took to see us back on course and was so grateful to join the rough track that led alongside the Beinn Eighe massif. We joined up with a small group for the trek across the giant boulder field that wasn’t really ‘runnable’, we patiently picked our way through until the tiny track at the end of the valley was spotted. A climb then a welcome fast descent to camp at the village of Kinlochewe followed and I was glad to see the blue tents and smell the chips frying as I approached. Two bits of slack navigation on consecutive days had probably cost me places but I was still in the race and at the halfway point I was glad to be still going and still feeling pretty good. I was feeling so good that after a rest, kit sort out and bucket wash I went to the village pub with Darren and Thomas Adams for an evening meal. The venison stew was delicious and I somehow avoided huge temptation to order a pint to wash it down with. I’d not touched a drop for a few weeks and wanted my first beer to be the one that I had after completing day 8. ( if I got that far !)
After making a couple of daft mistakes on days 3 and 4 I paid a little more attention to my map that night before getting off to sleep. I liked the look of day 5 and at 27 miles it had the feel of a day that could be savoured. I was‘t wrong, the weather was cooler and slightly overcast, perfect for running. I set off a bit later again with Darren and Alex, Darren who was back running after his time out but now carrying an injury that should really have ended his race. Alex too was nursing an ankle twice the size of the other, both seemed determined to not let things hold them back and the three of us really put the hammer down for the early stages of the day. The trails were wonderful to run on and despite 4 days running in the legs I was surprised how fresh I felt once I’d warmed up. Darren was entertaining to run with, his shin pain causing him to moan like he was in labour which made me laugh. Fair play to him and Alex, there were definitely dark times but I didn’t hear either of them moan about it once. As the sun emerged and the views of An Teallach became even more incredible I really began to enjoy myself, I ran whenever I could run and If walking was the sensible option then I walked and ate from my bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit. Very strange how I gradually came to really dislike chocolate coated brazil nuts, they used to be a firm favourite !
I was still with Alex as we hit the long final drop steeply down to camp at Inverlael. I let the legs go and tried to a free ride making the most of what gravity was giving me. Once I hit the road I kept pushing until the picturesque camp was inside and I dibbed to end the stage. I think it was my favourite day of all, I’d run as well as I could and enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. The campsite was perfect, the sun was shining and Shane was handing out choc-ices! It had felt like a privilege to run through that location and if it had been a marathon (which at 27 miles it pretty much was ) then I doubt there is a more beautiful marathon anywhere in the UK.
I was very surprised to see that I’d finished 12th that day and managed to peg back places lost on the previous two days. It had never been a “race” in the true sense of the word to me but I do admit that as the week went on I became more competitive with myself to do myself proud and finish the run as well as I could by scraping the barrel clean and by knowing that I’d given it all that I possibly could. This gave me a competitive edge, its an instinct that’s comes naturally to me but I honestly didn’t expect to be using it at this event.
There was still plenty of the day left for me to wash in the river, refuel ( really good fruit cake that day ! ), rest in the sun and chat. We applauded the later finishers home and the camp that night wall full of smiles and a growing sense of optimism. Camp life was always good, being in the company of others who are going through the exactly the same experience made for a wonderful togetherness, often “just a look” ( Jim's phrase ) said more than any words could ! There was a wonderful West coast sunset that night, most of us missed it as we were safely asleep in our tents but I was lucky enough to see the last glow of it as I went for a late night pee, a magical still moment which capped off a near perfect day for me.
“Day 6 is the longest day but for those of you who have made it this far it is unlikely to defeat you”- these are words from the CWU website and I was very determined not to let this day ruin my week! The day didn’t ruin my week but it tested me more than any other day. I had at least three dips and needed to dig myself out each time. Its strange how there are very significant sections of day 6 that I have no memory of whatsoever, maybe my mind has erased the parts where I struggled most. I did spend quite a few miles running with Andrew Clarke after CP 1, I remember a delicious trail snack combo that we shared of smoked almonds and biltong, somehow it suited the Mediterranean conditions of the hot dusty trail ! I was starting to feel a bruise like pain up my right heel along the line of my achilles tendon, it wasn’t sopping me running but the pain was fairly constant. Fortunately it never really escalated and I feel very lucky that a sore achilles was the only significant injury problem that I experienced during the race, I know most runners were having to cope with far worse.
Libby had sent me an Ultra Mail at the beginning of the week that had said when times were hard a good technique was to pick a target to run towards. Sometimes that target could be a mile away on the horizon, a bothy or a hilltop but when the struggle was at its worse the target might only be a boulder 8ft in front of you. I employed this strategy for quite a few miles , just making sure that I made it from target to target, constant forwards momentum; each target getting me nearer to the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Thank you Libby , that bit of advice was invaluable.
The missed path at the de-forested section was yet another navigational error – though I’m sure that GPS had me on the right track. Ploughing through half a mile of felled forest took a lot out of me and emerging onto the forestry commission road beyond it the full heat of the midday sun was sapping, the track was relentless. I took the RB baton from my pack and held it, I remembered all of you who have held it before and smiled. The baton stayed in my hand until camp was in sight, it was doused in river water and got a muddy coatingafter a slip into a bog! The Conival climb seemed to take forever but the views and weather were incredible, the sky a pure blue and the quality of light crystalline, I drew strength from this. The final section off the crest was thankfully easier going and it was with relief that I made it down to the single track round that took me to Loch Assynt and the camp at Inchnadamph. Shane asked me as I finished how I’d got on and I replied that it was the toughest day running I’ve ever had ! I dedicated the day to Hollywood and Michelle, their own battle on my mind helped to put things into a kind of perspective.
Later I stood with “ Team Sweden”( a couple of Swedes who ran the entile race side by side - finishing 8th + 9th, top runners and navigators ) in the ice cold water of the loch for 10 minutes to give the legs and feet a much needed ice bath, I then had a very invigorating wash down before eating a lot of soup, chips and cake ( pre meal snacks ! ). I saw Laura Watson looking as empty as I was feeling and gave her a hug, it was perhaps for me as much as it was for her but in that hug there was connection, comfort and I think it was what we both really needed right then. Six out of eight days completed and mental and physical fatigue certainly becoming a factor but there was a whiff of Cape Wrath in the air and plenty of adrenaline in the system to get me there.
I’m not sure that I gave day 7 as much attention as it deserved. At 38 miles , 1600m of height gain and a significant 24% trackless it was certainly a day to command respect. Perhaps it was because it was the penultimate day making it feel close to home and therefore somehow less brutal. I’m quite glad that I didn’t know how draining I was going to find the day! My mind was also on my son who is a climber and was competing for Team GB at his first European Youth Championship in Austria. I’ve been ferrying him around the country to domestic competitions and training camps for the past 6 years and watched him steadily improve and get the GB call up to the Youth team in 2014.I would have loved to have seen him compete in his first big European competition but I obviously had a commitment of my own, he was in my thoughts often as I fought my own battle that day.
I started the day with Alex again, his ankle injury was slowing him down and we were now similarly paced. We ran the first few miles with Gene Dykes ( aka The Gene Machine ), I was running with the youngest in the race (26 ) and the oldest (68), there aren’t many sports where age is not a significant barrier. We ran a smooth pace until the terrain got choppy off Beinn Uidhe. The views were once again breathtaking, superb rugged mountain country, no evidence of the influence of mankind in any direction. Alex and I ploughed on over a fairly decent stony trail , over heavier ground past the highest waterfall in the Uk, round Loch Gleann Dubh and up the step 4x4 climb beyond it. The way was trackless to the summit of Ben Dreavie and we were rewarded with really stunning views again.
It was just a case then of keeping a steady momentum, running all the downhill’s and sensible gradients, through CP1 where I nearly made a daft error by carrying on down the track instead of bearing off to the left. I was pretty whacked at the CP, mentally a bit drained but spurred on with the knowledge that tomorrow would be the shortest and the last leg.
When considering the end of the race I was caught between two strong emotions; I longed to finish the journey and complete the hardest challenge of my life and yet I didn’t want this magical period of ultimate freedom and simplicity to come to an end, I had a sense of nostalgia for the present, an odd feeling!
The miles that took us trough to CP2 were hard going, I was with Alex until the trackless section aproaching the never ending loch. We separated after a small navigational error and I know that he was once again having to dig deep to keep it going. John Minta was another digging deep and running the whole day on an injury that looked to have ended his race the previous day, I caught him at the loch and wished him well, he was limping badly and looked in a lot of pain. Amazing how the mind can block things out if you want something badly enough. The thin uneven track along the loch finally ended and the day finished on road , I ran it with Louise Staples, Frank and Mark Keddie. Mark and I even managed a sprint finish duel to the line ! I literally collapsed into my tent and lay there on the groundsheet for a while feeling almost on empty. I had some phone signal and managed to find the results from Austria, Hamish had qualified for the finals in 2nd place – a very proud moment which gave me a big boost and coaxed me up off the floor !
The evening was cooler and rain began to fall on the later finishers, I ate early and didn’t have too much spare energy so got to bed early with thoughts of the Cape Wrath lighthouse and the mere 16 miles between me and it.
I slept well, which didn’t surprise me given how tired I’d felt the previous evening. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so focussed on anything in my life before as I did that morning. Getting the job done was so tangible now and I’d decided to throw every single drop of energy that I had left into that final day. This may have proved to be a mistake, by throwing caution to the wind I could have made errors or suffered an injury. More sensible management of the final 16 miles of the course could or should have been a far better option and it would have removed the threat of not completing it. My state of mind was to race the last day and by doing so use up the small amount of energy that was left in the tank. Once I’d made this decision I committed to it fully.
Again I started with Darren and Alex around 7.30 ish I think. We tried to run as much as we could, the initial road section was obviously very runnable and then merged into a really good sandy trail, I kicked on and tried to put in some fast miles as long as the good running lasted. I knew that the trails eventually gave way to more rough moorland so wanted to make the most of it, these were wonderful miles for me – the finish line was only 10 miles away and I was running as strongly as I had all week. The beauty of Sandwood Bay was a welcome sight, I walked the full length of the white sanded beach and used the time to really drink in the situation and prepare myself for the final effort up to the light house.
Onto the rough ground beyond I began to run again and was still with Darren, we were also with a small group of other strong runners and I tried to cling on to their pace or set it if I was able, there was safety in numbers. Navigation was a bit of an issue as the cloud was low and direction was not always straightforward. We seemed to pick pretty good lines and made fast progress ( sub 8 min miles )over pretty testing terrain. I was running as hard as I could over peaty bogland wary of the fact that there was still plenty of opportunity to snap an ankle ! Eventually a rough track came into view and we instinctively knew that this track would take us to the light house. Darren and Stuart MacDonald were just ahead and running hard too, I was with Marcus Hanford. A very strange coincidence to be finishing this incredible journey with the same guy I’d met on the train and shared a cabin with right at the start of the adventure, it seemed like a very appropriate way to end it though.
As the lighthouse finally came into view we shrieked like excited kids and made sure that we really fully savoured that final half mile, I’m sure I’ll never run another mile in my life that will give me as much satisfaction. We finished together approaching the lighthouse buildings, through into a small courtyard alongside the lighthouse itself searching for the finish line. But there was no finish line ! We had beaten the race organisers who had been held up at the ferry it was an odd moment to conclude an 8 day race. In my mind I’d been imagining fireworks, girls with pom-poms and the theme to Chariots of Fire playing but instead we were directed into the little shop at the lighthouse where the old guy behind the counter glanced at the clock , asked our race number and scribbled our number and the time of day down onto a piece of scrap paper. Only a handful had finished, I think there were maybe 7 or 8 of us there, Gwynn had flogged his way to the end and finished there first he wasn’t happy ! , I had a minor sense of humour failure at this somewhat anticlimactic finish but Stuart quite rightly put me in my place. I’d not been aware of the reason for the problem. In a way it was quite nice just to be in that little tea room with the first few finishers of the inaugural Cape Wrath race, two bemused walkers and a lighthouseman. Darren kindly bought me a can of coke, I drained it and walked outside. I followed the courtyard round to a little enclosed area in front of the lighthouse looking out to the ocean.I took the oak Realbuzz baton out of my running pack, gripped it tightly and smacked it hard against the whitewashed wall on the lighthouse, theres a sizeable dent below the "e" or Realbuzz forevermore. I then sat on a low curb and let it all pour out of me, I just sat there and sobbed for a minute and stared out to sea. I felt good to let go of whatever it was that I was holding on to, maybe it was tears of relief , joy or exhaustion but they felt like very necessary tears. I’d finished the final day in 3.09, 6th overall for that day. When I found this out I was pleased that I had managed to drain the tank and put in this big effort at the end of such a long race, I had left nothing out on the Scottish hills and I’d made it to the light house safely and that had always been the ultimate objective.My final time was 61hrs 26 minutes and 21 seconds 17th place overall - I'd have bitten your arm off if you'd offered that to me at the start !
I came round the corner in time to applaud Marcus ( Scotney ) home, a few organisers and volunteers had also arrived so he was able to dib out to complete a wonderful victory. Marcus passed me on the trails every day and I marvelled at his ability to handle the terrain be it a steep decent or a punishing climb. He seemed to glide effortlessly over the ground in a way that elite runners manage to do. But more impressively, he treated everyone of us as equals with encouraging words as he passed and no hint of an aloofness in his manner. Marcus was a very worthy winner and just one of the gang. After a quick photo the first minibus arrived and we were driven off to the ferry. In retrospect it would have been good to have hung around, there were so many people that I would have really loved to have seen finish and been there to cheer home and share that moment of joy with them too, logistically it wouldn’t work though.
It was odd for me to be on that first boat back because of the company I was with, all top runners around me .I felt very happy on that little ferry journey across the Kyle of Durness., extreme satisfaction, physical and mental exhaustion and an overall pride in the knowledge that I’d achieved what set out to do. There were few words spoken on the short crossing, I had a good look at the others on the boat and realised that we were all feeling very similar emotions and taking the time to process it all. The race had been run and we’d all done ourselves proud.
The final nights camp was at a proper campsite so I made full use of the hot shower, amazing what a hot shower can do for your spirits. I found out that my son had finished 5th in the finals out in Austria, a very unexpected result – he finished the highest placed Brit in the event across the age categories and I was enormously proud.
We gathered in the pub 5 minutes walk from the campsite, a few of us to begin with but as more arrived back at camp the numbers swelled. Marcus and Jen were at the bar when I arrived, Jen very kindly bought me a pint and I went to sit round the table with a big group, the beer tasted so good . There’s nothing quite like a beer that has been well earned, it tastes different to a normal one and I felt I’d really earned that pint !
After a little more re-hydration it was time for the evening presentation ceremony. Mounds of food were eaten, more drinks were drunk and we cheered for every single runner who was called up to receive a medal. Huge applause for Marcus and Ita the race winners, richly deserved. Marcus said a few words to pay tribute to everyone involved and emphasise what an incredible adventure we’d all been on together. I only wish that those who hadn’t managed to complete the full race for whatever reason but still continued to run had been allowed to take the stage even though they weren’t receiving a medal. I would have like to applaud their efforts too because they deserved it just as much as everyone else. We had a chance to show our appreciation for the Shane and Gary, the organisers and their amazing team , a rousing standing ovation illustrated what we thought. The organisers and volunteers deserved every bit of our ovation, the event ran so smoothly and with a genuine community spirit to it. I felt like part of some incredible travelling Ultra Circus and the success of the race is down to each and everyone involved behind the scenes . These people worked so very hard to ensure the competitors had the best possible experience and I couldn’t have wished for a better experience. Thank you !
I had very little energy left to enjoy a late night and it wasn’t long before I was back in the sleeping bag for the last time, it was nice to know that there were no miles to run the next day, I’m not sure if I’d have been able to do any more.
We left on coaches early the following morning after hurried goodbyes, re-entry of sorts into normal life once again. It was a bit strange to be back in Fort William and interacting with people in everyday situations once again. I had a really good meal with a group of other CW runners , Louise Watson with her swollen feet sticking out the window sitting opposite me! We all chatted about our experiences of the run , our plans for the future and how that we hoped we could meet up again sometime somewhere, the bonds that you form in an event like Cape Wrath are strong ones.
I travelled back on the sleeper train, once again fate had paired me with Marcus Hanford and we shared a cabin on the journey south. The views from the train were beautiful and it was with a heavy heart that I said my goodbyes to the Highlands as the Cape Wrath journey came to its conclusion.
The dust has now settled and I’m feeling rested ,recovered and less raw, I’ve only run once since I’ve been home but am planning on gentle trail running in Snowdonia this weekend. I’m actually very surprised at how quickly I mended, I never had any real major aches or pains other than the slight achilles issue which has now cleared completely. I found the mental recovery significantly more difficult than the physical. I am lucky to have a supportive family ad group of friends who seemed to understand the magnitude of the CW challenge, however, understandably their interest soon dwindled not long after my return. I then found it quite hard to slip back into the normal routines and patterns of life after my 10 days away. Those majestic mountains were still out there and I was in a traffic jam on the A64. I missed the people, the shared experience of plotting our way through stunning wilderness, I missed the laughs and the toil. There’s no doubt that the whole experience has shifted my perspectives, perhaps changed me in a subtle way forever I’m still finding out how but I know that it has. In the course of a life you experience significant events which inform the next chapter and that’s how I feel about Cape Wrath.
It’s befitting to end with thanks and respect to each of the 95 that started the race, to all those behind the scenes that facilitated this unique event and those of you who supported me before, during and after my run. Finally the quote that I came across before I set of on the journey which seemed to make sense at the time and makes even better sense now:
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go” T.S Eliot
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