In May this year, 110 people completed the Cape Wrath Ultra, an 8-day, 400 km race – described as Scotland’s answer to the Marathon Des Sables. Filippo Faralla and Karoline Hanks held the South African flag up high at the Cape Wrath lighthouse. This is Karoline’s story…
Scottish myth has it that while wandering through the Highlands a ‘kelpie’ may appear to a weary traveller or inquisitive child as a magnificent horse, ready to be ridden. When touched or mounted, alas, the hapless rider becomes stuck to the kelpie, which will dash into the loch and drown the victim…
I had just completed the fourth and final day of the Richtersveld Wild Run in 2015 and was sitting on the banks of the Orange River, when I spotted my partner Filippo on his cell phone, tapping away madly and trying to enter us both for the 2016 Cape Wrath Ultra. He had been chatting to world-renowned trail running journo Ian Corless, who was with us and covering Richtersveld that year. Corless had been extolling the virtues of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back race in Wales and was very excited about the prospect of covering a spanking new entry in the international Ultra Trail calendar – the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU). This one was going to be a good few days longer than the Dragon’s Back and would play out in the Scottish Highlands. It was being organised by the same Race Director, Shane Ohly of Ourea Events, a UK-based organisation.
The prospect of running and self-navigating (at speed) through remote wilderness is essentially what drives this adventurous man of mine. So… when Corless spoke of an eight-day ultra-trail running expedition that weaves its way through some of Britain’s more challenging landscapes, a seed was sown, and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a CWU entry!
Alas, my Achilles was having none of that, and due to major surgery in December 2015, which took me out of running for 6 months, we opted to carry our entry over to the 2018 event instead (the CWU is a bi-annual event, alternating each year with its little sister, the Dragon’s Back).
Which is why, on the morning of the 20th of May, 2018, Filippo and I found ourselves alighting from a ferry onto the banks of Loch Linnhe in Fort William, accompanied by the evocative and goose-bumpy sounds of bagpipes being played by a ruddy-cheeked fellow in a kilt. Along with 177 other ultra-enthusiasts, we were about to set out on an epic 400 km journey.
The Cape Wrath Trail is touted as one of the toughest long-distance hiking trails in the UK. The trail starts in the relative comfort of Fort William (a charming little town at the base of Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis). It then winds through an exquisite patchwork of mythical, ancient mist-drenched lochs, boggy glens and rugged peaks and includes Morar, Knoydart, Kintail, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland until it reaches Britain’s north-western most point – Cape Wrath. The trail often follows centuries-old, traditional drovers’ and funeral routes – routes that crofters and their animals would have used to navigate the remote north-western seaboard of Scotland.
Most people take between two and three weeks to complete the full journey and whatever time of year you attempt the trail it will test the limits of your physical and mental endurance. But dark, boggy moments are quickly forgotten amid a solitude and beauty rarely found in modern life. (Walking the Cape Wrath Ultra Trail, Ian Harper)
To say that I was ill-prepared for this race is a gross understatement. We have been talking about ‘The Scotland Trip’ in our household for years, so it always seemed a somewhat mythical thing that was going to happen in the very, very distant future. I barely gave it the time of day or attention it deserved, leaving it all up to Filippo, who has always been a meticulous planner and sorter of all things adventure related. He was the one who made sure we had all the right mandatory kit, that he was clued up on all the many Do’s and Don’ts and Must Haves. He spent days pouring over google maps and overlaying the organisers waypoints with his own, ensuring we had a detailed breadcrumb track for each day’s route (a solid purple line on our hand-held Garmins). I would come to love that solid purple line (and depend on it – quite literally – for survival!)
‘The Scotland Trip’ came about too quickly, of course. My training was haphazard and sprinkled with odd ill-timed affairs like the Two Oceans Ultra and the Platteklip Charity Challenge.
About two weeks before the event, I thought best to get some insight into the race and get my game face on. They say ignorance is bliss, but I was quite quickly coming to realise that I was in for a very BIG and very tough challenge – and I was being far too glib and nonchalant for my own good!
In describing the route, the hiking guidebook speaks of ‘some of the remotest country in Britain’, ‘one of the wettest places in Europe’, of ‘sudden weather changes, impassable rivers, extreme temperatures, ticks, midges and deep, dark bogs’.
Day 1 started at a hellishly brisk pace. Given that we had some insanely long days ahead of us, I was quite alarmed at just how brisk. We ran along a lovely little oak-lined country road adjacent to the beautiful Loch Linnhe for a good few kays, with the front runners jostling and posturing for positions. Carol Morgan – an Irish lass – had set off at a bristling pace from the outset. She remained the female leader for the entire race. A veteran of ultra and endurance challenges, she also won the last Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race and the Montane Spine Race in 2017.
We then ran along an undulating rocky jeep track into a massive valley/glen – still at a very stiff pace and I found myself being overtaken by many runners. The voices of doubt started to niggle. We were just into Day 1 and already my lungs were bursting, and my hip flexors were twitching. What have you done Hanks? Who do you think you are? Why would you think you could possibly run 8 ultras in as many days?
I could just feel the steely eyes of a kelpie on my back on Day 1 already…
On the other side of our first ascent, I had my first real encounter with the boggy, soggy, humpy-lumpy, slippery stuff that would become the norm for much of the race. Often one would take a misguided step on what looked like mossy ground and you would plunge into a sucking, slurping bog – often up to thigh height. It took my breath away. Is this how it’s going to be the whole week?!
Roughly 3 ½ hours later, I got to the camp – an impressive layout of about 22 eight-man tents and a few main white marquees (kitchen, mess hall, medical tent and race HQ) and 70 welcoming, super- friendly race volunteers and staff all going out of their way to make our experience as comfortable as possible. We were staying a stone’s throw from the tiny settlement of Glenfinnan has been made famous largely for the Harry Potter viaduct – an impressive construct that towered above me as I stood in the icy river and had my first bracing, post-race Scotland river wash.
Day 2 saw the organisers batch us into groups based on our ‘prologue’ Day 1, with the slower runners starting first. The clouds were heavy and threatening to wobble, as were most of our moods – knowing that we faced a 57 km day in icy, wet conditions. The terrain was challenging, with bogs, slippery humps of grass and rocks. We passed through some utterly gorgeous countryside – fairy-tale waterfalls fringed with ancient, gnarly forests. Sadly, the technicality required such an intense degree of focus, that there wasn’t much time to stand around and take it all in.
At the top of the very final peak I could feel my mind and body shutting down. I was soaked through, the wind chill was hectic, and I could sense system collapse. I remember Filippo hearing my mumbling and seeing my face and then taking control, helping me put on two extra thermal layers and forcing me to eat something. My hands could not work, they were frozen into useless claws. I burst into tears and wept pathetically, taking huge gasping breaths and feeling immobilised by fear. I heard later that our tentmates (a young couple from Malaysia) had to be hauled off the same mountain, suffering hyperthermia. The end of the race for them.
Many participants found the day’s route and run brutal, and there were some despondent faces around camp that night. Some runners only trickled in well after midnight. There had also been one or two dramatic rescues off isolated peaks and one rescue even involved a boat, such was the inaccessibility of the route.
The Kelpies were at work – and runners were starting to topple.
Her slick, green skin twitched feverishly. She shook her vast, wild mane of dripping water weeds and serpents and pawed the Loch’s muddy bank angrily with her vast hooves. The kelpie then slid effortlessly back into her dark, misty home. She had just missed making eye contact with one lonely, exhausted runner….just. She would wait for the next though. And the one after that. She would wriggle her way into their minds, lure them into her dark, bottomless waters, and never let go…
Day 3 was another brutal, long day with endless trackless boggy sections through the remote glens of Kintail and with four massive climbs. By the time I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. I was in a dark mood. I could almost smell the Kelpie’s fetid breath, she was so close…
The one thing I realised very early on in this event was that nobody has any sympathy for or interest in your ailment, pain levels or discomfort. They’re all in the same boat and it really is all about each to his/her own. So, you could go about feeling sorry for yourself, but it began and ended there. It was a case of toughen the hell up, or go home…
Even though Day 4 was the second shortest day of the CWU, the accumulation of the two previous days distance and climbing was etched all over runners’ faces (and bodies). Many were held together with K-Tape and the meal tent mood was a tad more sombre than previous nights. Despite its relatively short distance, Day 4 still managed to bite many of us firmly on the arse with a long stretch of trackless boulder hopping towards the end.
Days 5, 6 and 7 have become something of a blur for me. I know they were all spectacular, and that they were long and tough and challenging. We would be out there scaling endless steep mountain peaks, negotiating our way through incredibly boggy, trackless moorland for hours on end. Yet on all those days the weather was perfect, and the rare window of sunshine would burn away any chilly, dark sentiments about one’s predicament. Had it been cold and wet throughout the week, I think the fallout would have been tremendous.
Kelpies have a weak spot. If you can get hold of a kelpie’s bridle, you will have command over it and all other kelpies. When a kelpie is captive, it is said to have the strength and stamina of ten horses. It is highly prized. If you have the power to use a kelpie bridle on this malevolent spirit beast, then it will bow down and serve the master of the bridle.
The final day’s route was spectacular, taking in as it did some exceptional coastal landscape and beach running. It was the shortest day, and we all knew it, and were eager to finally reach the seemingly elusive lighthouse that we had all heard about perched on the end of those ragged cliffs at Cape Wrath. My biggest regret is that I did not explore that little finger of land that plunged dramatically into the wild Atlantic below….I was just too shattered and overcome with relief at completing the race!
How does it compare to Marthon Des Sables?
So – is this really Scotland’s answer to Marathon Des Sables (MDS)? Says Edward Vincent who completed MDS in 2008, and ran CWU this year, “I would say that CWU was a lot tougher than the MDS. I think mainly it’s the 8 days with no rest day and the elevation that makes it tougher – even though of course it is 100 miles longer. I never felt out of my depth on the MDS (apart from on Day 1), whereas there were a couple of times at the start of the week on CWU (Day 4 in particular) when I was a bit worried.”
Another 2018 CWU finisher Alan Li, who ran MDS in 2015 says, “With MDS, sandy terrain, heat and nutrition was the biggest challenge. You can be more strategic as you have the option of sacrificing luxury over mobility and also there is a rest/recovery day after the long stage day. Having said that, the length of CWU and the brutal cut-off times makes it less of a ‘walk in the park’. I believe that the CWU is a much tougher footrace. If you don’t look after yourself from the outset, there’s a high chance of DNF. I raced CWU – not against others – but to make sure I had enough time to feed, wash and take care of basic body admin back at camp.”
I like to think that when you run the CWU, you dance with the kelpies. The kelpies, of course, being the voices in your head, the ones that want to see you fail, drag you down and snuff you out. The Kelpies got hold of 38% of the field this year…
With any tough endurance event, where you are asking your body to do unspeakable things for an inhumane amount of time, where the pain levels shoot through the roof and beyond, yet you know you must keep going – up the next peak, through the next seemingly impassable bog field, the mind and how you control it becomes your greatest weapon. I found my kelpie bridle out there in the magnificent Scottish moors….possibly halfway through Day 5.
I met some extraordinarily powerful humans out there too – people who stared pain right in the face and blew those kelpies right out of the water, with the reins firmly in their hands.
Robert Barnes, England, won the men’s race in an impressive time of 45:37. Carol confirmed her place as one of the UK’s best ultra-runners by winning in a time of 55:11 and an impressive 12th overall. Filippo Faralla had an astounding week of running, and despite a hideous stomach ailment throughout the night before Day 6, he bounced back and claimed 6th overall with an excellent time of 52:20. I was placed 3rd woman, in an overall time of 59:22.
Day 1: Fort William to Glenfinnan (37 km; total ascent 500 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 2:37
Easy running up and into Cona Glen and the moorlands of Ardgour with a cascading river to the left. Runners head up and over the shoulder of Meall na Cuartaige and down to the camp in Glenfinnan.
Day 2: Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn (57 km; total ascent: 1 800 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 6:35
The route ascends into remote territory with several high passes. The day’s highest point is at 522 m.
Day 3: Kinloch Hourn to Achnashellach (68 km; total ascent: 2 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 8:46
Route takes runners through through the valleys of Western Ross, with the highest point at 800 m – just below the dramatic Forcan Ridge. The waterfalls of the Glomach are the most voluminous in the Highlands.
Day 4: Achnashellach to Kinlochewe (35 km; total ascent: 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Ian Stewart 4:21
Runners will experience the mountains at their loftiest, with high rocky passes. The terrain is rough underfoot and the last section requires careful navigation.
Day 5: Kinlochewe to Inverbroom (44 km; 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 4:37
Runners take on a moderate 1 400 m climb into the Fisherfield mountains and into some very remote wilderness, surrounded by high peaks, including An Teallach.
Day 6: Inverbroom to Inchnadamph (72 km; total ascent: 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 7:43
On this, the longest day, the route penetrates some very remote and rough high ground, but is preceded by significant distances on double-tracks in the glens, and through prime salmon-fishing country.
Day 7: Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie (61 km; total ascent 1 600 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 7:04
A great contrast of moor, mountain, and deep inaccessible sea lochs. Eas a’ Chual Aluinn is the highest waterfall in the UK.
Day 8: Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath (26 km; total ascent 700 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 2:41
Runners leave Kinlochbervie and head to Sandwood Bay, one of the UK’s most remote and beautiful sandy beaches. They then crossing rough hills and moorland before the lighthouse comes into welcome view