My Cape Wrath Ultra Story

I’ve been toying with this for a couple of days, how do I do the experience justice in a blog? How do I put down in words the emotions, the scenery, the rollercoaster of a journey?  The following will be an honest account of my time on the Cape Wrath Ultra. I will save you the chronological, step by step version, perhaps I will write that at some point, but for now, this is what I have to share. And to be honest, the days merged into each other so I’m not even sure what I did each day.

I’m lying on my sofa, 3 days after finishing at Cape Wrath with two throbbing feet. Each with shin splints, showing up as tendonitis at each big toe joint. I have an infected left big toe, and a swollen burser of the hip.  Each foot is slightly swollen, the only thing that has reduced since Monday are my cankles.

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My overall feeling is sadness. I was described as downbeat today at work.  I might be suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Not from running, oh no, but from the bubble that was the Cape Wrath Ultra and more importantly the community that was assembled and since disbanded.  Spending the best part of 10 days with strangers where after you feel like you’re great friends, or at least good neighbours is a rather special experience. Especially when you mix in high doses of adrenaline, emotion and exhaustion.

It was day 2 and the rhythm of daily life began to take hold. The following would be repeated daily until Cape Wrath.

I’d wake up at 5am and go to the loo with baby wipes, sudocrem, lube and damp running kit. I’d do the necessary and get back to the tent to pack my gear.  I’d read my daily message from Tina, pack my sleeping bag and mat away, put my hill food in my day pack and put on cold, damp shoes.

The call of breakfast time was the starting of the generator that seemed to herd folk toward the breakfast tent at 6am.  A small queue would form to wait and politely talk about the day ahead, about any injuries, the weather and to complain if the midges were bothering us.

Breakfast done, I’d clean my plates and head to the tent to close my bag and get ready to go. Some days I would be fixing my feet, putting tape on blisters or places where shoes would be rubbing, toward the latter days my feet would be so swollen that they wouldn’t fit properly in my shoe, which was a bit inconvenient!

Bag packed, I’d hobble over to the kit check area, get my mandatory kit randomly checked and hand over my overnight bag for it to be transported to the next camp.

As I say, this was repeated day after day.

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The first few days passed without much ado. Some absolutely gorgeous scenery, even on day 1 when passing over the mountain pass into Glenfinnin.  Day 2 was soggy and long – 56Km, I was out on the course for 11 and a half hours.  The final stretch along Loch Hourn was tough, technical and damp. Demoralisingly it took 2 hours to move 8kms.

This is where I stubbed my big toe, my toe nail would eventually die on day 4 after several repeated kicks to immovable stones.  On day 2, I’d arrived in to camp to find the inside of our tent had puddles in each sleeping compartment. It had been horrible day and the crew needed to dismantle and erect about 20 tents each day.  I duly mopped the water and squeezed by hand the water out of the tent.  I was low and a bit deflated.  I wondered at this point if it would rain all week, and how wet all my kit might become.

The days would be filled with ups and downs, but the early day downs were nothing compared to the latter day downs.  Downs were going to be inevitable on a multi stage race like this, but it was how you dealt with them that became important.  I make no bones about it, but from the start my strategy was survival to get to the finish.  No heroics, no speedy days, just keep moving forward toward the lighthouse.

Thankfully though, the weather improved from dry and overcast to sunny and no cloud. cover.  The latter, although not ideal, was a better option than dealing with deluge for days.

I think for a race like this, those down periods are helped by those who are around you, to bring you out of them, to remind you to eat and drink, remind you why you’re doing this, and to say something that will make you laugh, or even cry.  SO my thanks to Alastair who I rode with for a few days at the start, and to the eventual dream team who adopted me on Day 5 and helped me through the pain cave days. Nikki, the positive purple pixie did her trick, with Ian and Owain providing light relief by taking the piss out of most things, especially our singing.

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The most incredible thing I realised though, that no matter how much you finish the day tired, emotional, and exhausted, you can get up the next day and start.  Or so I thought!

My lowest moment arrived on Day 6, after a few days of my feet progressively worsening with the tendonitis and the stubbed toenail, my feet were in pain.  My lateral stability hampered by changing my gait to accommodate the feet issues, meant more pressure on my quads and hips to stabilise myself resulting in a swollen burser. These pains were worse on the downs, and all that day I’d been fighting the pain with Paracetamol.  Day 6 was actually quite runnable, with 72kms total distance.  By the end I was getting fatigued, we had one climb left. Going up was fine, the views were amazing, the ridge line of Ben More Assynt out to our right as we climb the pass underneath Conival.

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Our descent started tricky, with 8km to go we were on the homeward stretch but after 64kms already we were tired.  The path ascended first, then descended down cliffs, high above a ravine, and turned into a mountain single track path with large boulders.  The gradient just so that each time my feet would touch the ground, they would immediate hurt, added to that my swollen burser stabbing pain down my left thigh.  We eventually went off the track and headed for the burn across heather and bog with no distinct track.  We reached the burn and descended into the sharp valley it was running through where the track was on the opposite side.  The track, ordinarily would have been a great track to run, but in my condition, I was in pain with each step.  I needed to stop, but I also needed to keep moving.  Every thought was fixated on the pain, I had maxed my dose of drugs and thus couldn’t take further pain relief – the Dr probably wouldn’t let me.  The running crew started to get faster, as they wanted to get back. Eventually the single track made way for larger track but the gradient would increase meaning more weight and pressure hitting both feet and hips.

It was at this point giving up entered my head for the first time, I was in a dark place.  I didn’t understand how I could even think about finishing that day, never mind another 2 days of running. Every step I thought about it, every contraction of the quad muscle I’d be screaming inside.  I couldn’t stop though, Nikki, Ian and Owain were ahead and I needed to finish with them.

I tried to speed up but it was worse, I started to despair and at that point, cry. I was crying due to disappointment, that I wouldn’t be able to finish the race, that my race would end with injury and that I wouldn’t make Cape Wrath that time.

I tried to console myself, I couldn’t, pulling my cap over my eyes further as I neared the guys who had stopped to wait for me so we could run in together.

I was so ashamed to be crying but at the same time knew they would understand.  I thought it was over at that point.  Nikki remarked, ‘I know you’re crying but we just need to get across this line’.  So with that I took one deep breath and focussed on crossing the line for the day. It was then that I also remembered what Torben – whom I met off the train in Fort William – had said, “Don’t quit at night, quit the next day once you’ve started if you have to”.  And so I resolved to that advice.  I would not quit that night.  But it didn’t make the pain any easier.

We arrived into camp, and I immediately started to bubble again.  I was tired, exhausted and unable to control the emotions.  I darted to get away from people to be by myself and get on with the evening routine.

The next day, I got up, and started the routine.  I managed to hobble to the portaloos and then back to tent.  I decided I would give it a go that day and see what would happen on the course.

Day 7 was a bitch though, a wonderfully beautiful bitch but it was a hard day nonetheless.

An amazing competitor retired that day, Alex. She retired due to an ankle injury sustained on Day 5, she started well but the terrain wasn’t forgiving and with that retired but from what she says, happy to have got there and made the right decision. Alex was awesome and kept with us and cheered us on when I know that must have been tough to see people continue when she couldn’t. Kudos Alex, Kudos! Retirements were becoming common in the latter days, it was tough out there, even for experienced runners.

Her retirement made me think, think if I should too, but the track alongside the loch was quite runnable and I could actually run/shuffle it, and that sealed the decision for me.  I would continue. I would try to complete this thing.

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The previous day’s woes were replaced by a slight high that I was able to move on these tracks and move up, but would need to take it steady going down so as I preserved myself as much as possible.

Most people had pain, and they were dealing with them in their own ways.  Derek had a dodgy knee, he was moving though, and each time we’d catch up with him or visa versa, you’d find him sitting in the burn cooling his legs and knee down.

Each day gave us new challenges and landscapes.  I’ve spent time in hills more than mountains, I have survived the mountain marathons and navigation around them. I have been on some munros and know what to expect when climbing.  I, however, was not well versed in mountain passes, though capable, I wouldn’t say I was expert.  I was absolutely blown away by them in all senses.  The experience of climbing up to a bealach (scottish word for mountain pass) is amazing, the peaks are towering above you, you’re often on trackless ground, or single track, rocks, heather, bog, all in your way.  As you reach the top, they are usually narrow and the path winds its way through until you reach the view at the otherside.

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Each pass we completed on the Cape Wrath were special, each with their own technical difficulties but also with the amazing view.

Running over the mountain pass between the Saddle and the other one (can’t pronounce it) was fantastic.  The cliffs on either side make a great amphitheatre with awesome acoustics, our rendition of the ‘Lion sleeps tonight’ went down a treat, and made me think that it would a great place for a concert, not sure about the logistics of it all though.

Video: Ian Heywood (turn volume up)

Another highlight was Ben Eighe.  The path ascends its westerly side, a good path, gently rising.  The sun was beating down, it was warm.  Very unlike Scotland.  The path eventually turns around to its Northern Side, where you slowly contour around and slightly up.  At a point you can see the waterfall being fed from the Corrie, surrounded by the triple buttress of peaks.  An amazing sight. The views to the North, North West and East were fantastic.  We didn’t have much time to stop and stare until we had to be back on the route (coach Nikki kept us going), making tracks along trackless boulder field.  This was the cause of ‘Cape Wrath Ankle’, the medical team’s nickname for the left ankle swelling that swaths of patients had been complaining about.  The boulder field was steep, near vertical,  with loose rocks making it quite treacherous.  We were glad to have got that done and onto some relatively level ground.

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That day was short, only 44kms, “only a marathon”. We finished mid afternoon, in time for going to the shop, a full submerge experience in the river to wash and cool down and even time for an interview with the Cape Wrath Media team. It was hot, sunny and we were able to recover a bit more after the previous day’s adventures.

By Day 8, we were ready to finish, fatigue had set in both in our hearts and minds.  We wanted to get it done more than anything and at this stage nothing would stop us from completing the journey.  I was ready to crawl if need be.

Sandwood bay was another highlight of the trip, so magnificent in beauty and drama of the sea stack and cliffs.

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The finish.  I had expected myself to cry, sob, breakdown.  But I didn’t.  None of us did in our group.  I think it was mere relief that the running was over.  We were all happy, elated, and full of joy to have completed the 8 days.  I have made friends for life I hope in Owain, Ian and Nikki.  I also met some other top people too, Keith and Rob who kept the gang going as they met us toward the end of each day.  Two top blokes, tent mates of Owain and Ian. They were secret in how we finished strong each day I think as they added much needed energy into our group. Alex and Derek were also fab, their outlook on the run and enthusiasm kept me entertained and ready to hit the trail.  They also had whisky!

And to all the other competitors – I thank you all for saying hello, putting up with our singing and encouraging us as you flew by, or as we passed you. You’re all brilliant.

Even the event team, volunteers most of them, were brilliant.  In camp they would be there to help and encourage, and to get you through camp life. They were as much part of the family as the runners, if not more.

On reflection, I’m glad I did it, and super pleased to have completed this challenge.  I just need time to process it all. So far I’ve raised over £1000 for Hope for Children, you can still donate here:

10 responses to “My Cape Wrath Ultra Story

  1. I can empathize with the feeling of sadness – you have been on the equivalent of a drug for the past 8 days and I now having a type of withdrawal. The camaraderie of being with a small group of people I have also experienced from many years ago and being on a forces training camp, away from normal life. You will be missing that unique time and that adds to the low. The build up to doing the adventure has been happening for months, consumed your every thought and now its over. It’s almost like a bereavement I guess – you no longer have that on your horizon, its done and you are unsure how you feel about it. It will have changed you in some way and life will take a while to revert to norm. You need a total break, get away with Andy for a few days if you can. Eat and drink well and reflect in all the love that your friends and family are giving you x

  2. Hey Glenn, don’t worry about feeling deflated, it is really totally normal after finishing a mega event that has been a focus for so long. And they don’t come much more mega than this! The good stuff is still there and soon will be what you remember the most. You win at the mental game 🙂 I feel like I know a superstar! 😀 Agree with ironmum2013 – take time to rest, eat, relax, spend time with Andy and your friends, really honestly sleep some more and then do not try to run even when your legs feel better – the rest of the body’s systems will take longer to catch up. My own recipe is sea swimming and cake! x

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  4. Amazing, congratulations so much Glenn, I have so much respect for you as I know what the pain was like for me on Day 4! I chose to drop out but you chose to just keep on going. You crazy amazing guy. It was great to run with you on Day 1. I’m thrilled you completed this beast of a race! And even more brilliantly, that you did so with such a wonderful team of awesome folk and have made friends for life. See you on the trails, Claire x

    • Thanks Claire. It was really good meeting you and everyone on the CWU. It was such a positive experience. Really tough but positive. The body is an incredible thing. Well done on getting back on it to get to Cape Wrath! Happy running!!

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  6. An amazing story about our amazing journey. I especially enjoyed the expression “making tracks along trackless boulder field”
    Thank you

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