Part 2: Why I’ll never trust a man in a skirt again…

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A similarly bare-kneed fellow (without the pipes) offered some decidedly questionable directions on Day 3! (thanks to Jimmy Hyland for the pic)

With an event of this magnitude, where there are so many participants and where the sharp end of the field is fiercely competitive, the organisers need to lay down some rigid ground rules. All runners must be on a level playing field – no benefits may be gained from a) sneaking in a warm shower at a hotel along the way b) taking food from the mess tent to eat later out on the trail (!), c) skimping on mandatory kit, d) receiving any form of trail-side assistance from family, friends or even strangers etc.

Ultra-runners are naturally quite a single-minded, self-absorbed, belligerent bunch at the best of times. I know this. As such, you need some staunch systems in place. Failing that, you would quite likely have a riot on your hands.

As a SAffer, where we generally see most rules as mere suggestions, I found this quite a challenge, and, as luck would have it, fell foul of the system quite early on.

I only have praise for Shane Ohly and his team of Ourea Events. Their day-to-day management was impeccable, and their adherence to systems and consistency around rules was most admirable. It cannot be easy – being bad cop when you are simultaneously managing an event where encouragement and support really are the order of the day.

There was, and I kid you not, a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Out, as in, out of the race, go home, bye-bye. This struck fear in many of our over-worked little hearts, and towards the end of the week, there was some trepidation (within the ranks of the more criminally-inclined) as we tried to navigate our way through a strike-free day, as well as across the bog-saturated landscape.

 

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Rules and news would be written up here daily….

 

I was struck down on the morning of Day 5. Yup! The shame of it! I had omitted to include gloves in my pack, you see. This being compulsory kit, I was given a strike. They were very sweet about it, and all that, but a strike was issued nonetheless. A stain against my name. Community service for me…??? No!…a 44k run instead!

One chap was issued a strike for “outside assistance”. The form of this assistance? He got a lift to the pub which was some distance away in a car by a mate for a beer! Yup….it was brutal out there.

The rules kicked in the morning of the race when we had to check our dry bags in. These were the bags Filippo and I had packed, unpacked, packed, unpacked several hundred times – both at home and in the UK. We had somehow managed to overlook the sub-text in rule 1 00 001 around dry bags. The one about weight allowance. We could only bring 20kg with us. Not a nanogram more. Our bags were being weighed by an officious fellow in a blue shirt with an electronic suspended weight machine thingy.

You can imagine the blind terror at being told that we each had to shed 5kg – before we had even started. But shed we did – all our meticulously packed clothing and food, all came out….into the car park of Fort William. Since all our other bags had been taken to Inverness the day before for retrieval at the end, we had nowhere to leave anything we did shed.

Food was the biggest casualty. Again, given the fact that we could not expect the organisers to feed us when “out on the hill”, we had to plan ahead and pack 8 days’ worth of nutrition. So the bananas, boiled potatoes, fruit squishies, energy bars were ditched. Filippo’s eye-wateringly massive quantity of nougat was ditched. It all ended up left on the front seat of the rental car – in the vague hope that the rental car people would enjoy the smorgasbord of trail running delights. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Given the weight restrictions, the take-no-food-from-meal-tent rule was a challenge for many I think. There was many a runner (in the latter stages of the race) who would stand in the queue, eagerly eyeing the tray of boiled eggs, slices of bread, bananas or sausages (no, not the sausages) and be dreaming up devious and cunning ways of smuggling items into pockets or under armpits…

We ate spectacularly well, and the catering was top draw, all served by the happiest, friendliest group of men and women. It was entirely meat-free – all week. We were told this would be the case upfront, and menus were listed upfront, so any serious carnivores had the opportunity to plan ahead and factor this into their 20kg allocation. I mean, how much can a leg of lamb really weigh?

And so we come to the bacon smuggler. He shall remain nameless, as I wish to protect his identity and future participation in all races in the UK, but, this incredibly generous soul took pity on us on the morning of Day 5. He had clearly seen our hollow, haunted looks and sagging shoulders 😉….He bought a few rashers of freshly fried up bacon at the nearby café and smuggled it into our tent! The air of subterfuge was palpable, as he entered our tent and hastily unpacked his stash, whispering loudly “eat this, quick!”.

Both F and I gobbled it up like ravenous street kids, making sure to wipe all evidence of bacon fat from our lips. The crazy thing is, I am pretty much a veggie – but THAT bacon. THAT bacon…..it filled some kind of crazy, calorie hole and our bodies were grateful.

[On a side note, the above activity was entirely legit. We could make use of local shops and pubs, if we wanted to, if access was there for everyone. So I am not sure why there was any guilt attached to the bacon fiasco, perhaps just because we were in a designated meat-free zone?!]

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The food tent queue in a quieter moment…

From bacon smugglers to budgie smugglers…or the lack thereof, in Filippo’s case. Given his extraordinary speed and technical skills out on the route each day, Filippo would be at camp long before me. This gave him ample time to unpack his 20kg bag, lay out his bedding and get himself washed. This involved getting oneself to the closest river, dancing over the slippery pebbles and doing as deft a body wash as possible. In the first three days, this was in very chilly weather and with wet, skanky towels. Deeply unpleasant. Added to that, there was no element of privacy. For someone like me, with all manner of hang-ups (as alluded to in Part 1), washing one’s naked body in full daylight, standing up in a river, in full view of a bunch of strange men – yar, well, it had its moments.

I was shy and anxious on Days 1-5 and would try and walk miles upriver to avoid detection…..by Day 6, I really didn’t give a rat’s arse about who saw what. Funny what a bit of shared pain and adventure does to inhibitions.

Filippo had no such qualms from Day 1. This man – who admittedly only had a small face towel to work with (bigger towel ditched to make the 20kg, you understand) – was unphased by any vague notions of self-consciousness. He was frequently spotted – completely kaalgat/starkers – walking casually from the river washing area back to his tent, past all the volunteers and any other runners who may have also come in.
Granted there were not many of those. Given his great speed.

Still, after a while, the volunteers came to speak of him as “the naked one”. Much to my intense embarrassment. That embarrassment was all mine, and mine alone.

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“The naked one” – seen fleetingly before dashing down the mountain to camp.

So why will I never trust a Scotsman again? Well, on Day 3, which was incredibly long and incredibly difficult, with more peaks and climbs and bog crossings than in all the days combined, I came across the kilted one having a late evening stroll down a road. I was spent. Done. Tickets. I had been running for well on 10 hours and I needed to know that home was in sight.

My watch had run out of juice earlier that day, so I had no idea how far I had run. As I staggered past him, he put his meaty hands together and clapped, congratulating me and telling me Porker #1 “Yer looking soooo strong, keep goin’, well done!”.

How much further?” I ask.

Ogh eye….yer jes hafta pop o’er that wee hill o’er there, and the campsite’ll be right there!”

Oh phew, thank you!” I pant….and continue.

Only then do I really engage with the direction in which our kilted friend has pointed. There are no real hills, to speak of. There’s a vague bump in the road in the horizon, granted. But not a hill. Beyond that I see a very ominous mountain – it’s peak smothered in rolling, grey cloud. So which is it, I wonder?

I spend the best part of the next hour pondering the Scottish definition of hills and mountains and then as I crest the “hill”, I look down into a valley – utterly bereft of any civilisation – and certainly no tent in sight.

Right about then, I had one of those all-fall-down moments, which I think all adventure racers/ultra-runners have. I wept a little and bellowed “Nooooooooo!”. Nobody heard me. Nobody cared. I was alone.

I then promptly stepped right into a deep bog. More tears and wailing and extraordinary expletives – even I didn’t know I was capable of uttering.

I remember breaking into a very earnest and loud conversation – it may well have been for Angus’s benefit – something along the lines of: “Ooooh look, what do we have HERE…..I do believe that’s another f*%ing bog!….Oh, and over there? Oooooh, goody….! that’ll be another f&%ing mountain!

Once I got over all that, there was nothing for it but to knuckle down and gather myself….and climb. Yet. Another. Effing. Mountain.
I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. A solid day out really. One which started shortly after 8am!

That night I was a little gloomy, but all that melted away when one of the volunteers “knocked” on our tent door and announced “Ultra-mail for Tent 7!
This was the most wonderful feature of tent life. Supporters from far-flung corners of the globe could communicate with you via the tracking site. It was all sent to a central PC and printed out. These little pieces of paper with lovely words of encouragement from friends and family were little positive treasures – they quite literally saved the day.

 

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My stash of ultra-mail – oh the joy!

 

Any blog on this race would be incomplete without mention of Angus – my happy, hairy coo and my most loyal running buddy. He did the full 400k, he did, and didn’t complain ONCE. I take my hat off to him for that – stoic little bugger. On Day 8, as we neared the finish line and had the lighthouse in full, glorious view, I grabbed him out of his comfortable pozzi on the back of my pack and slotted him in between the straps across my chest so he could watch the finish and us carrying the SA flag.
I swear that his little grin got a whole lot broader right then. As did mine.

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Relief etched all over Angus’s face at finally finishing the 400 k CWU!

 

 

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Part 1: “Just over tha’ wee hill”, said the funny man in a skirt..

33768743_10156529854459048_7450161919316459520_nIt takes a while to digest something as challenging and tough as the Cape Wrath Ultra. I have spent hours going over the map, dissecting each day’s route and trying to grasp just how far we ran and the kind of terrain we ran through.

It’s a little crazy how one realises just how special, unique and life-affirming an experience is only once you are back home and dabbling in the mundane once more – packing lunch boxes, driving a monosyllabic teenager around, standing at the sink etc.

A CWU finisher who has written about the experience talks of a deep sense of calm she has been feeling since being home. I can attest to that. Whether this is thanks to the 8-day injection of endorphs or just sheer bloody exhaustion, I am not quite sure.

There is also a sense of not really wanting to talk about it all – it all just feels too surreal, foreign, dream-like, detached.

The challenge always with these things is capturing the right words, squeezing them onto the palette and then cobbling them together in a way that paints a picture for the reader – to somehow transport them into the world we inhabited for eight days and to help them relive it all with you.

I usually find the best way to deal with something difficult is to find the humour in it all. So far from a serious, technically accurate race report (which can bore most non-runners – and runners for that matter – to tears), I will attempt to bring the experience alive with a shot or two of humour and a focus on some of the quirkier aspects of a big expedition race such as this.

The whole bloody thing was Filippo’s idea.

Although this may sound disgustingly ungrateful, one needs to understand that I would NEVER, EVER seek out and sign up for an 8-day race – not here, not anywhere in the world. Aside from the obvious expense aspect (and the fact that I simply do not earn enough to justify the entry fee), I just wouldn’t see my way past the inevitable physical pain potential. That’s aside from the extensive air travel required (note, I have a pathological fear of heights and being in a metal tube with 200 plus people). Oh… and then there is the fact that I would have to be doing the whole communal living thing with the great unwashed. A challenge for any self-respecting misanthrope.
It all sounded quite hideous to be honest. But good girlfriend that I am, I went along with it with a smile. What a cracking idea. Yes, let’s go run an ultra-marathon every day for eight days. In the mud. With midges.

Lets!
So we did…

I was horrendously undercooked for this one. Filippo wasn’t. Filippo invested an inordinate amount of time in some serious back-to-back training, condition coaching, massage therapy and research, time on legs and then some. And it showed. The man ran a blistering race and popped out at the end in 6th overall. I ran at an infinitely less blistering pace, did a fair amount of bitching and complaining (to nobody in particular) and limped in 23rd overall and 3rd woman. This result may appear very impressive at first glance, but not when you see that I was well over an hour behind the second lady and a solid 7 hours behind Filippo! This latter detail is something that I shall never, ever get over. I shall be reminded daily, if not hourly, of this remarkable stat.
The competition between the two of us used to be quite robust. I have indeed been known to beat the bugger in one or two races. Comrades even. After this event, that has summarily died.

Apples and pears you understand. Apples and pears.

For something of this magnitude you really do need to get your shit together. You need to be preparing mentally and physically for at least 6 months. You need to be setting aside most things –family, love, work, play, pleasure, wine, chocolate, life….and just run. Run, run, run a bit more and then run again. A bit like those funny Ironman people I guess. The event must become your be all and end all. Otherwise you are quite likely to stare failure in the face and confront the very real possibility of Dee-enn-effing. (For the uninitiated, that means Did Not Finish. DNF is an acronym that strikes fear in the heart of many an athlete).

I stared the DNF monster in the face a few times in the first three days. And then I decided that – like all the other runners who were also in pain – it would just be better to toughen the f&*k up and get on with it. More of that a little later…

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One could write about the route, the terrain, the scenery and the distances forever. I could spend hours using whimsical prose and flogged-to-death superlatives such as gob-smacking, awesome, superb and magical. But I won’t. Because the views were all that and more and photos can only really do them some justice…

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Scotland is a magical, spiritual, ancient place. The fact that we ran through some insanely remote wilderness, where it would have taken 12 hours or more to access and bail out an injured runner made it special enough for me. I love remote. I crave being as far away as possible from humanity. And there were vast sections of this route where you simply did not see, smell or hear any sign of human life. That was intensely beautiful in its own right.

This next paragraph will only mean something to trail runners in SA, so apologies for this. It’s a useful exercise though, and has helped me to get a sense of this crazy CWU monster…

So on Day 1 we ran the equivalent distance and technicality of the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. On Day 2 we awoke to the bone-shattering cold and rain and set off to run Marloth (in distance and elevation gain). The day after that, on tired legs, we carpe-diemed the crap out of Ultra Trail Cape Town’s 65k race. A day after that, we smashed the OTTER (oh grail of trail that it is). On Day 5, we charged out of the camp to take on Table Mountain Challenge and then some. On Day 6, we embarked on the PUFFER. Because we can! On Day 7, we dabbled in a little Sky Run Lite equivalent. And then on Day 8, we had a little breather, and did a longer version of the Fishermans Trail Challenge – just a little warm down.

So that takes care of route, distance and elevation gain details. No need to really go into much more on that front…

Onto communal living! The tents were all miraculously laid out and arranged upon finishing each day. The 70-strong volunteer/event team were brilliant in every way. I have never met such a delightfully, cheerful, helpful, funny, efficient bunch of humans ever. Every single day they came out in their blue T-shirts and had a cheery, positive chirp, a genuine helping hand and a big encouraging smile. Testament to Shane’s sterling leadership, I imagine.

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Sharing tents at the best of times can be a challenge for one who likes their space and who has a large – read, GINORMOUS – space bubble. And tolerance issues generally. Misophonia actually. Over sensitive hearing and oversensitive olfactory issues. All round baggage really.

So when I was asked to share a fairly small space with 8 other humans, 6 of them total strangers, it was a pretty big ask. But this adventure was all about toughening the f%#k up, remember, so I donned the silicone ear plugs when it was bed time, smiled and carried on. Thankfully for us (and most certainly not for them), we lost 4 of our tentmates after Day 2, so we ended up getting to know 2 wonderful Canadians, who turned out to be the kindest, loveliest people I have met in a long time.
Sleep was tricky for a host of reasons – not least of which was the Scottish sun, which just refuses to put itself to bed! The brain gets seriously confused when at 11pm it’s still light. Hard when an aching body is craving rest and sleep.

People in neighbouring tents also somehow felt that their canvas walls were impenetrable and sound-proof. So we got to hear all robust and lively conversations, very clearly, late into the night. And the snoring. And farting. The latter increased in pitch and cadence as the days went by. I will place the blame for this firmly at the door of the Great Veggie Sausage (GVS). The latter a regular feature of the buffet table. Particularly at breakfast. Those GVSs had a sneaky habit of breaking into the odd stew, lasagne and soup for dinners and lunches. Cunning beasts those sausages.

While on matters lavatorial, one cannot talk about any expedition race of this nature without making mention of the chemical porta-loos. Again, I had to put all sensitivities aside and embrace the concept of sharing 12 porta-loos with 250 or more folk over 8 days. This doesn’t need too much airtime, suffice to say that after about Day 4, a few runners clearly lost interest in the flushing routine. There were indeed one or two times that little confined space was just too dangerous to enter. As a child I developed a rather strange fear of public lavatories, and have never really managed to sit on a lavatory seat. I had to set much of this unhelpful, crippling OCD behaviour aside however. Though I drew the line at using my hand to man-handle the large pump stick mechanism thingy which drew the blue chemicals into the bowl. I used my foot for that. Depending on which day we had run, I had to use a different foot. The one that wasn’t strapped up and toe-nail-less and which was most up to the task.

The walk to the bank of toilets was always quite an amusing affair – placed as they were a fair distance from the main camp and feeding area. As the week progressed, the “porta-loo alley” would be a scene straight out of WW1 trenches – grown men leaning heavily on walking sticks, limping forlornly past, others hobbling zombie-like with midge nets over their heads muttering post-traumatic syndrome gibberish…

One lesson learnt on this one. While standing in the food, tap, washing up or toilet queue, one should never, ever, ever ask a fellow CWU runner this: “How did your day go?” Do that and you’re generally in for something along these lines: “Aaargh, my ankle’s stuffed…..Hmm, torn a ligament in my calf…..Not great, think I’m out…..Bit broken, everything sore …..” That sort of thing.

One rarely had: “Ooooohhh, I had a cracker of a day, jeepers, what a ride! I am super strong! Blitzed that boulder section I did! And, man alive, I cannot WAIT for sunrise tomorrow so we can get stuck into the 76k day!!!!!!!”

Nope, not a lot of that.

Part 2 will involve sordid and intimate details of a bacon smuggler, Filippo’s daily naked post-wash dash across camp, meeting a f(lying) Scotsman in a kilt (who told me a porker about the remaining distance to camp on Day 5), finding sympathy and compassion in a war zone, a brush with hypothermia, hugging strangers, ultra-mail and other tently delights, pain management, prize giving embarrassment and Angus my happy hairy coo companion pictured below in all his smiling glory.

PS: This was a BRILLIANT adventure and I loved (almost) every minute of it.

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