Friday, 8 June 2018

Cape Wrath Ultra: "We're Half Way There" (sang)

Another week has passed since my return to normality, and I'm clinging on to memories from CWU.  I shed a smile or two with each retelling of the adventure, and try to maintain the zen-like state I came home with.  This week has mostly consisted of rest... well, not 'rest' per-say, I've still been quite busy, but only minimal exercise.  I did my first run on Tuesday; an easy 7km with a friend, and it felt good!

So, back to the story!

The start line

After months of preparation it was finally here!  I'm often emotional lining up to start a big race.  Today was no different.  Normally I get a bit teary during the swim of an ironman; doesn't help with vision in your goggles! All those hours of training and sacrifices you've made finally come to fruition.

It was a grey, drizzly day in Fort William.  One last toilet stop and a panicked emergency dose of Imodium (please just be nerves and not the remnants of my stomach bug), then I was at the Nevis Centre with other competitors.  I managed to get the last space on the first boat, and a caterpillar of runners, we wiggled our way along the high street to the boat.  All on board, most people cowered inside from the rain.  I stood outside, watched Fort William shrink further away, tracing my husband along the shore as he disappeared back to the car.

Nervously watching Fort William shrink away.
Photo by Jimmy Hyland JHPVisuals

I reflected on what I was about to endure.  Crazy.  Definitely crazy!  The piper played us onto land, and we milled around, drinking tea, chatting nervously.

I'd reccied day 1 a couple of months previously; 10km on the road, 15km of easy track, 5 km of up and down with a bit of mud, 5km of easy track.  An easy day!  Actually when I had run it, I'd had such a terrible run, and could only hope I'd be on better form.

Two more boats arrived, then it was time.  Off we went!  I ran with Owain and we were determined to go slow, constantly time-checking ourselves and reminding ourselves to slow down.  The day was uneventful, and we arrived into camp after 4hr30 of running (faster than planned...), ready to settle into camp routine!

Camp Life

Tent life in tent 13 was pretty spectacular!  Known as the 'babes tent', we definitely had the most laughs!  We had Sarah Witte (our pocket rocket, finished second place), Pam from America (great sense of humour), Lillian (fountain of knowledge, having done the route 2 years ago), Irene (very wise, mother-like, looking after us all) and Pilar from Mexico (unfortunately had bilateral tibial stress fractures).  I was fortunate enough to share my sleeping compartment with Jill, a fellow doctor.  Words to describe Jill other than lovely (which she definitely is!); determined and stubborn!!

You quickly settle into camp life with a routine; wash, dry feet, clean clothes, warm clothes, pack bag for tomorrow, lay out your bed, then eat, and eat some more!  Early to bed (9pm where possible), followed by early to rise (5.30am) to start it all again; tape feet, pack up bed, eat some more, pack kit bag, and ready to go at 7am.

Day 2: Hitting Rock Bottom

Things quickly get serious on day 2 as you head across Knoydart.  Weighing in at 57km and 1800m of climbing, this was clearly not going to be a walk in the park... and man it really wasn't!  The day started well with a nice climb, before a slippy, slidey, boggy descent down to our first river crossing of the course.  I'd been quite worried about these as I hadn't really done many/ any in the past.  Fortunately there wasn't much to worry about!  Get your feet wet and get on with it!

After CP1 we hit a good path in the woods, and then trucked along through Glen Dessarry, teaming up with Ian also.  It was good to have someone with new jokes to add; me and Owain were already running out!

The day was beautiful (well, what we could see of it... it did rain a fair bit) and the highlight was coming into the stunning Barrisdale bay.  Knowing you were 8 or 9km away from the finish was quite exciting.  Unfortunately I'd been warned this was not an easy end to the day, with more undulations and rough trail than desired.  Our tent named this stretch the Barrisdale Bastard; very appropriate.  At this point I ran out of energy big style, and ran out of food.  I think if I hadn't been sick in the lead-up to the race I would have been fine, but just lacked the glycogen stores to get me through.  Fortunately for me, Owain and Ian fed me Jelly Babies and Strawberry laces and kept me moving.  We were met with a downpour as we arrived in camp; cold, tired and wet.

Wet and wild on day 2
Photo by Steve Ashworth
At this point I wandered what the heck I was doing, even beginning to think I was good enough to be here!  I felt rough, and there was no way I could get this course finished!  One of the race crew carried my bag over to my tent, and offered me a much needed hug.  I responded to said hug with a barrage of tears (sorry Owen!).  At this point he helpfully told me what to do; "give me your mug, get inside, get dry and get some warm clothes on."  By the time he re-appeared 5 minutes later with a hot cup of tea and a piece of chocolate cake, I had warm clothes on and was sorting out my wet feet.  Absolute hero!  I don't think I would have finished if it hadn't been for Owen making sure I was ok, then checking in with me throughout the rest of the week.  The support crew (all of them, not just Owen, although he definitely deserves a special mention) were absolutely amazing!  Armed with plenty of hugs and words of wisdom and support, they definitely helped me get through the week!

Day 3: Reaching new heights

The night before, after a tough day out on day 2, I was stressing about day 3; it was longer AND hillier!  (68km, 2,400m ascent).  After the struggle I'd had on day 2, there was no chance I'd finish this!  Laura (medic, previous finisher in 2016) reassured me that it was an easier day and I'd be ok; she was definitely right!

I set off early, again with Owain and Ian, and we quickly left behind the beautiful Kinloch Hourn.  After coming over the first hill of the day, we hit the bottom of the Forcan ridge.  The rock was dry, and I felt like I had remembered how to run again.  Trusting my feet on the dry rock, it felt incredible to run down over the bottom of the ridge, before dropping down into a grassy glen; this was definitely one of the highlights of the course for me.  If day 2 had been rock bottom, day 3 was definitely very special!

In Shiel Bridge we popped to the shop (like you do on an ultramarathon...) and greedily devoured salt and vinegar crisps, an ice cream and a drink as we stomped on through the village.  At which point my husband unexpectedly appeared to cheer us on.  That, plus a wardrobe malfunction that saw me wearing all purple, made for a positively cheery day!  I was re-named the positive purple pixie, with various alliterative extensions to the name.

The positive purple pixie (with giant smile!)
Photo by Fiona Outdoors

The sun was shining and the day was good.  Although it did keep going, and going, and going!  Between CP6 and CP7 we passed a particularly boggy bit of terrain, including crossing over some very deep bits of bog.  It was particular amusing watching David Deane take a very daring run and jump over one of these deep boggy channels.  Fortunately for him, this went well.  But it would also have been amusing to watch him land waist deep in bog... we took a more cautious route around that bit!

The Bearnais bothy was as beautiful as expected, and then we slogged up the final hill of the day.  By now, we also had Rob in tow, who generously shared the bottle of coke with us that he had been carrying since Shiel Bridge.  We headed up the hill, Ian leading the way, and had our first ultra-running alphabet.  If you've never played the game it goes along the lines of 'I went ultra-running and I took... A, B, C, with each person repeating the previous, plus adding one; an Altimeter, Barometer, Cat (!), Day-Glo running top, Energy Bar, Foxes Glacier Mints, Ginger Cat etc etc etc.  It certainly made the hill pass quickly, before we arrived at the high point, to begin a long, torturous descent down into camp at Achnashellach.

The sun had been shining, but camp was still wet... very wet!  Puddles had formed in our tents as they had been taken down and re-erected wet.

Day 4: A Rest Day?

Short, at only 35km, heading through Torridon was far from a rest!  Clocking in at only 8 hours, it was definitely easier than the previous 12 hour days, but the terrain was definitely challenging.  Our team became four today, as Glenn joined myself, Owain and Ian.  Introducing the dream team...

Glenn, like myself, was a fan of singing, so things started to get lively as we headed up through Coire Lair.  Crossing the first Col of the day, we were singing Elton John's "Can you feel the love tonight" (the Lion King version!).  It was pretty special hearing it echo around off the rocky cliffs.  Wow!  A good path, with some nice running, took us down to the Ling hut and a road crossing/ check point.

We continued uphill, and around the back of Benn Eighe, initially on a good path as far as the Loch.  Seeing the triple buttress, it's hard to express the feeling of wonder and awe.  I contemplated winter routes I'm yet to climb, and can't wait to return!

Leaving the loch we experienced the highlight of the day; an enjoyable boulder field!  I don't know how many ankles were injured that day, but it was certainly a relief to reach camp uninjured.  At some point during the day, Canadian Mike passed us.  He had been following us up the hill during our alphabet the day before (but hadn't contributed); we presumed he just hadn't listened.  How wrong we were!  In his lovely accent, he said hi, then proceeded the recite the beginning of our alphabet; it had us in fits of giggles!

Day 4 finished in Kinlochewe at 3pm, with the sun shining!  Finally a chance to dry out wet kit, and have a proper wash under a tap in the field.  (I'm sure I washed at the end of day 3 too, I just can't remember doing so...).  We treated ourselves to a trip to the shop for more ice cream and a can of pop, plus a chance to buy extra food supplies.  The mood was overwhelmingly positive that evening in camp.  We were half way there!!

Before you get too bored, it's definitely time for my nightshift; and half way is a good place to pause!

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