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Cape Wrath Ultra 2020: 19 things to know. So many questions and answers!

Written by Fiona

April 24 2019

The Cape Wrath Ultra is a unique biennial trail running event known as Scotland’s Expedition Race. The third Cape Wrath Ultra takes place from May 24 to 31, 2020, and entries open on May 1, 2019.

The eight-day, fully supported race starts in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands and heads north for 400kms through some of the country’s wildest and most beautiful areas to reach Cape Wrath.

19 questions you wanted to ask (plus answers)

1 Biennial? What does this mean?

A biennial event is one that takes place every two years, or alternate years. Ourea Events organises the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race on alternate – in between – years, too.

Jim Mann was a front runner in CWU 2018 but you do not need to be as experienced to take part in the event.

2 Do I need to be a running whippet to enter?

No, is the short answer. The organisers do not vet the race participants but they do request that potential runners make sensible decisions before entering. Entrants should be experienced off-road runners and believe that they have a reasonable chance of completing the Cape Wrath Ultra.

They need to make a declaration that they have sufficient off-road running, mountain and ultra experience so that they understand the nature of the challenge and they are capable of being self-sufficient and making safe decisions in the Scottish Highlands.

What struck me at last year’s race was that there is no ultra runner “type”. The Cape Wrath Ultra attracted men and 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.

What I also realised was that many people from outside of Scotland do not have a realistic understanding of “Scottish terrain”. Our wilder and more remote areas can prove tough for runners because the race does not always follow trails and paths.

In addition, we have a lot of rain and there is bog. So many overseas participants were shocked by the amount of bog, and also the heather.

It’s worth taking a look at this Cape Wrath Ultra film to see what type of terrain to expect. It’s gnarly, although this is also what makes Scotland such an amazing and challenging country for runners.

3 If it’s so tough, why would I enter this race?

As well as the surprise from some runners about the tough terrain, many were also blown away by the superb Scottish scenery.

The race route heads through some of Scotland’s most impressive landscapes with numerous breath-taking vistas of hills, mountains and coast.

Whether you’ve been to Scotland before or not and even if you live in the UK, you will be stunned by the fabulous scenery on the Cape Wrath Ultra.

4 Is the race route waymarked?

No it is not. The route does follow a lot of the Cape Wrath Trail, a long-distance walking route, but it is not signposted. Participants are supplied with Harvey maps that have the routes clearly marked and it’s possible to download a GPX route to use on phones and watches during the race.

However, because there are no signposts and the path can disappear, it’s vital that you can navigate by map and compass. Scotland’s fickle weather can also make the route finding a lot harder than in good conditions.

I noticed that participants started to form groups as the race went on and they supported each other with way-finding.

See Cape Wrath Ultra maps and navigation info.

In 2018, there were good weather days and trickier days. Scotland delivers the unexpected, but fingers crossed for 2020.

5 Have you ordered good weather again?

On the whole, Scotland gave its best May weather for the 2016 and 2018 editions of the race but there were still some days of wet and cold. So who knows what 2020 will bring.

Runners must be prepared for famous Scottish four-seasons-in-one-day conditions, including paying attention to kit and being able to navigate, because no-one can predict the conditions for the next race. We can only hope for great weather again.

Expert logistics to keep participants safe.
Large volunteer team.
Full catering.

6 I have heard it’s costly to enter the race

Having witnessed first hand what goes on behind the scenes of the race in terms of support, logistics and food etc for one of the longest and toughest foot races in the world, the entry fee (£1799) seems pretty fair to me.

Of course, people could set out to do the run self-supported and without entering the Cape Wrath Ultra. That is perfectly possible but carrying all your own kit for 400km is a big ask for many people. There may also be companies that are willing to transport your luggage between overnight stops but this will be very tricky in some of the more remote locations and, quite likely, impossible every day.

In any case, this is an iconic race and I have heard many runners saying it’s a definite for the bucket list.

Also, you can see on the website all the things that are covered by the entry cost. It’s a long list.

These are some of the highlights: Satellite tracking of participants; luggage transportation; overnight camps; practically unlimited breakfast, finishing snacks and dinner each day; emergency medical cover; mountain safety team cover; race t-shirt; finisher’s medal; Harvey map of pre-marked race route; return transport from Cape Wrath to Fort William; buffet meal the night before the race starts; and a celebratory meal on the last night of the race as well as breakfast the following morning.

Another thing that is money-can’t-buy is the level of commitment and support offered by the volunteers and staff. It rarely seemed as if anything was too much trouble when a participant sought help or needed assistance.

7 Can my partner or friends support me en route?

While friends and family are welcome to cheer you on, and stay abreast of your progress via satellite tracking on-line, they must not assist you in any way that would be unfair to other participants.

As an example, they cannot give you food parcels or take you out for a slap up meal (unless they do exactly the same for every other runner!).

They must not enter the overnight camp areas either. These rules are not created because the organisers are unkind but because it is meant to be a race that is equally fair for all.

8 Does that mean I’m not allowed to go to a pub or shop myself?

No. You can enter shops, pubs and hotels but that is because these facilities are available to all participants should they choose to use them. The chances are, however, you will not have easy access to many such facilities because the route is often remote and even if they are near an overnight camp you might well be asleep before you can be bothered.

A typical overnight setting.

9 Do I need to share a tent?

The short answer is, yes. The tents are designed for eight people, with four two-person sleeping compartments and a communal area. There is enough space for eight people to organise themselves, if they stay neat and tidy.

There are female-only tents available and many women did prefer to sleep away from the (snoring) guys. Although it’s worth noting that women snore, too, so ear plugs are recommended.

If you enter the race solo you will be paired up with another person of the same gender.

Friends and partners who are racing can be grouped together in tents if they ask in advance.

10 Is it a back-to-basics style of camping?

Well, it depends on what standard you are looking for. The campsites are usually a farmer’s field.  

The tents are roomy enough but there are few mod-cons. You need to bring you own sleeping equipment, including sleeping bag and mat. A small pillow is a good idea if you can fit it into your overnight bag. (Everything that you require to be transported each night must fit into one 80l bag.)

There are plenty of chemical toilets (I was impressed by how clean these were) and washing is generally done in rivers and lochs local to the campsites. At the end of each day, warm water is available in washing buckets.

There are large communal tents for the kitchen, dining and medics.

Oh, and there is no electricity available to participants throughout the race.

Participants need to take their own power supply for phones and watches.

11 Is it true there is no electricity?

Yes, this is the case. There is no access for participants to electricity during the race so this means you need to work out a way to charge phones and watches etc.

There are plenty of modern devices for charging gadgets. Most people arrive at the race with fully charged power banks. Solar chargers can be a good idea as well. (It’s best to test these in a range of weather conditions before you join the race.)

There is often little in the way of 3G or 4G coverage either and participants receive messages from friends or family outside the race through a special Ultra Mail service.

Off road footwear is highly recommended.

12 Is there a recommended kit list? And what about footwear?

Yes. There is also a mandatory kit list. One of the questions that many people ask is what sort of footwear to take. Probably, the best answer is a few different pairs.

Everyone will have their preference for running shoes that cope with trails, rocks, mud and bog etc. These will range from shoes with deep studs to cushioned trail shoes.

Grip will be essential on slippery terrain even on fairly flat ground, so you should choose a shoe that you know will grip on rock.

Most people avoid waterproof running shoes because they hold water once the water gets in (usually over the ankle). Running shoes that let the water in and out will be better.

Many people wear breathable and waterproof socks on days when it will be rainy or boggy.

It’s a good idea to take a selection of running shoes in your overnight bag (as well as a dry bag to store the wet shoes from yesterday). The chances are you may well wear out one pair of running shoes over the course of the run and/or have a hankering to try a different shoe because your feet are sore.

Each day, the stage will be described in terms of the type of train so that will help with shoe selection. For example: Trackless (XT) 20%; single track 38%; double track 30%; tarmac 12%

Oh, and you need to be able to fit all your kit, including change of shoes, in one large overnight bag.

PS. Road running shoes are a definite no.

The Cape Wrath Ultra is for people of different fitness levels and for a range of paces… but training is vital.

13 How will I pace this race?

Many people worry that they will run too fast – or too slow. There are the highly experienced ultra runners who know exactly how to pace a multi-day long-distance race but most of the participants are relatively new to this type of multi-day ultra running.

The advice is to stay well within your comfort zone. Some runners set out far too fast on the first day because the distance is shorter. I saw how, with fresh legs, these runners decided to push themselves a bit. This was a mistake for many.

If you are not racing to win, most people will need to set a slower pace than you could ever imagine. The people who finished the Cape Wrath Ultra in 2018 were the ones that paced themselves.

They walked the hills and stayed well within their comfort zones when running on the flat and the downhills.

One runner had an excellent plan and it got him to the finish line. On the days of fewer miles he walked or ran these very slowly. On the days of more miles, he upped his pace. He did not race other people. He always aimed to be back to the campsite in time for dinner.

If you under-estimate the accumulative mileage you will most likely end up injured or running out of steam

It seemed to me to be a race won in the middle and back of the field by the relative tortoises compared to the mad hares.

14 How can I possibly train for such an event?

You need to get out and run/walk the miles in training. It’s important that your body and mind are prepared for running many miles off-road and day after day.

Of course, you won’t run 400km in one go in training but you should be able to run long distances on back-to-back days.

The female winner Carol Morgan described the Cape Wrath Ultra as a holiday…

15 Some people have called the race a holiday. Really?!

For many, the opportunity to run with back up and support on a famous long-distance trail and in one of the world’s most beautiful locations feels like a holiday. New friendships are also formed and many long-lasting memories are created.

In fact, last year’s female winner Carol Morgan described the Cape Wrath Ultra as a great holiday.

16 What if I get injured?

There is a medical team that travels with the race. You can ask for medical aid at the campsite each night and if it’s an emergency during the day’s run you will be able to seek emergency help.

17 What if I miss a checkpoint or daily cut-off time?

When you have trained for an iconic race and then fail to reach a checkpoint or the cut-off time it can be very disappointing. The race rules are there to keep everyone safe and to ensure fairness among participants.

You can choose if you want to retire completely from the race at that point or continue as non-competitive. Some runners might do shorter days where logistically possible or have a day or two off and travel in the motorised vehicles with the volunteers.

A very cheerful team of volunteers. Many runners said how much they appreciated the support.

18 Can I be part of the volunteer team?

Yes. Ourea Events is always keen to hear from people who would like to volunteer to assist with the race. Volunteers have a range of jobs such as safety, logistics, catering, building the campsite each day, medics and physios.

Rather than receiving payment for helping at the event, volunteers gain “event credit” to the value of the entry fee to enable them to enter other events run by Ourea Events.

See volunteering info.

19 Can I chat to other Cape Wrath Ultra runners?

Yes. There is a Facebook group (from May 2019) filled with people who can give you tips, advice and information. Some may well have completed the event before, while most will be new. It’s well worth discussing your training plans, kit requirements, lift-sharing, nutrition, midge-strategies etc.

Also read:

The next Cape Wrath Ultra is in 2020. Entries will open on May 1, 2019.

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