18 things I learned while reporting on the Cape Wrath Ultra 2018
For nine days I followed the Cape Wrath Ultra runners from Fort William to Cape Wrath in north-west Scotland. I was the blogger-journalist for the event and I spent my days talking to the runners, running some of the daily routes, driving and sleeping in my campervan and writing news articles for the website.
It was one of the best weeks of work in my 30-year career and it ticked so many happy boxes for me including:
- Immersion in the fabulous scenery of north-west of Scotland
- Gathering people’s stories and reporting from the field
- Running, especially on remote trails
- Being part of a team of like-minded people
- Travelling and sleeping in my campervan.
I also learned a huge amount about what it takes to organise a multi-day stage race and the people who enter these events. Here are just a few of the things I discovered.
Also have a read about the Cape Wrath Ultra winners.
18 things I learned about the Cape Wrath Ultra
1 There is no ultra runner “type”. The Cape Wrath Ultra attracted men and women (although only 25% of the field were women) of all ages. The youngest was 26 (male) and 29 (female). The oldest was 66 (male) and 60 (female). The average age was 45.
On the start line were experienced long-distance runners, stage race newbies, people who had only ever run a marathon distance and athletes of all shapes and sizes. The runners came from 26 countries.
2 Scotland takes many people by surprise. One of the most common reports from the runners was that the trails in north-west Scotland are far tougher and gnarlier than they expected.
They also used numerous superlatives to describe the scenery. Many runners, especially those from other countries and even those from England, were blown away by the landscape and views on the Cape Wrath Ultra. Despite seeing the event videos from the first event in 2016, participants expressed their delight at seeing Scotland – beautiful and stunning – in reality.
Brilliantly, the sun was shining for most of the race, too.
3 It’s amazing what you can achieve by upping the pace a bit – and digging deep. The Cape Wrath Trail is 400km and takes the average walker about three weeks to complete. The Cape Wrath Ultra runners did it in just eight days (although there was a lot of endurance required).
4 The average daily mileage of 50km might not sound like a lot to an ultra runner. However, running distances of between 72km and 25km (that was the last day!) on consecutive days on rough terrain grinds down even the hardiest of runners.
5 The drive, determination, motivation and stubbornness of runners has to be witnessed to be believed. Seemingly broken runners, many with painful injuries, managed to get up each morning to complete another day. Their faces were easy to read, which made it even more incomprehensible how they could take step after another step.
6 Friendships are made quickly and firmly during a multi-day race. With very little outside contact (3G or 4G was rarely available and participants received messages from outside people through an Ultra Mail service) the participants found strength – and solace – in fellow runners.
It was very uplifting to see the pairs and small groups of new-found friends running together or offering a shoulder to cry on, as well as words of encouragement, at the Cape Wrath Ultra.
7 Sharing tents can be fun apparently. Well, discomfort and adversity does bring out the best in many people. While this is the part of the Cape Wrath Ultra that would put me off mainly due to the potential for snorers, many runners talked of happy camping.
There were wet days at the start of the race that made tent nights a less than comfortable experience but on the whole, the camping experience brought people together. Snoring became less of an issue as people became so tired that they would sleep though anything (and it was possible to move tents if the disruption became too much).
8 It is possible to keep on smiling through mental and physical pain. Through miles and miles of remote and tough terrain and with all kinds of injuries, people were still able to smile and laugh.
9 The Cape Wrath Ultra is not just about racing. The event is also named “Scotland’s Expedition Race” because it is meant to be a journey and an experience rather than a race.
Of course, there are those that were there to compete and to finish in a good times but there were also people who were there with the hope of being able to finish. For others, the aim was to do as much of the run as they could and enjoy the trip.
If runners missed a checkpoint cut-off or the 11pm cut-off at camp each evening they could decide whether to retire (and go home) or continue after a day’s rest or do shorter days where logistically possible.
10 Unbelievably, some of the front-runners saw the Ultra as a holiday or adventure. First female to finish, Carol Morgan, was running the race as her summer holiday. Her husband was also a participant and he was as thrilled as Carol by the experience.
Jamie Ramsay set out to enjoy the adventure and the journey and ended up coming home in third place. But the Gore Wear ambassador saw this as a bonus rather than his aim.
11 Many runners were very inspiring. Some had emotional reasons for taking part in the Cape Wrath Ultra such as Dan Gregory, who was raising funds for charity after losing his best friend to cancer. David Smith was raising funds for SANDs after his step-daughter had a stillborn baby.
Glenn Tait had once been overweight but while shedding 4.5st he took up running and entered many races. The Cape Wrath Ultra was his longest and toughest yet.
Others had entered as couples, supporting each other, or as a way to stay fit and challenge themselves as they grow older, or to prove to themselves they can achieve something that others might think is impossible.
There were runners who arrived at the race already injured, such as Joasia Zakrzewski, who was determined to give the challenge a go even though she was still recovering from a stress fracture in her tibia. She managed to complete most of the course and even ran the fastest female times on the last three days.
For a part of every day I wondered if I might be able to run such a race. I am not sure my body would cope but I was sufficiently inspired.
12 The race couldn’t happen without the amazing volunteers. A team of around 70 volunteers and staff worked hard to support the runners through eight days of tough adventuring.
They built – and took down – an entire camping village every day. The village included multiple eight-people tents for the runners and marquees for catering, eating, medics and media.
The volunteers also cooked and catered for runners, staff and other volunteers at almost any hour of the day. To top it all they did everything with a smile and a brilliant attitude.
The medics dished out the most amazing support and advice to runners who were very often almost crawling to reach the tent. One participant was overheard saying: “The service is better on this race than in at my local GPs. There are more doctors and physios per person than I have ever seen in the NHS.”
For anyone who thinks the entry fee of £1600 (2018) is high you should see what goes on behind the scenes. I think it’s a very fair entry cost.
13 Volunteers gain credits for races. Instead of payment, the volunteers can collect credits to enter Ourea Events. Some volunteers planned to take part in the sister race, the Berghaus Dragon’s Back, while others hoped to do the next Cape Wrath Ultra in 2020.
14 The bosses are fab. I was employed by Shane Ohly, the race director and owner of Ourea Events, and also the marketing manager Tom Hecht, who turned out to be the most wonderful people to work for. They are professional, clever, thoughtful, good-natured and very passionate about their races. I felt honoured to be chosen to be part of the team.
15 The logistics of a multi-stage race are mind-boggling. The course planner was Gary Tompsett, alongside Shane, and the attention to detail of supporting 177 runners through some of the most remote areas of Scotland was very impressive.
16 Eight days on the road is a great way to see the best of Scotland. From Fort William, through Knoydart, Torridon, the Fisherfields, Assynt and to Cape Wrath, I enjoyed revisiting some of my favourite Scottish destinations. To see the all in one trip was amazing.
17 The joys of working with a very slick media team. We were six very hard-working and professional individuals who came together to do a great job and in an illuminatingly democratic way. We also enjoyed the experience of the race while working. (Thanks to Gary T for suggesting this point.)
18 And last but by no means least, mobile campsites can offer good portaloos. The chemical toilets on he Cape Wrath Ultra campsite were the best and cleanest I have ever used. And the Walk of the Zombies each morning as the runners made their way bleary eyed and sore to the portaloos before setting off for the day was a sight I will never forget.
The next Cape Wrath Ultra is in 2020. Entries will open in May 2019.