To the Lighthouse - Cape Wrath Ultra 2022, 22-29 May 2022
Updated: Jun 5
Ask anyone internationally about multi-day ultramarathons and the chances are, if they are able to name any of them, they will mention the Marathon des Sables (MdS). I suspect that in a few years’ time, the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) will start to be mentioned in the same breath, as in many ways, this is the closest thing that Britain has to offers that compares with the experience of the MdS. Speaking to runners who have completed both, the general consensus appears to be that CWU is the tougher, gnarlier challenge.
It was in a flush of self-confidence after completing 2021’s Summer Spine race that I decided to enter CWU – after all, if I can complete a non-stop race of 268 miles in 6 days, a 250 mile stage race over 8 days should be no problem, right? Oh how wrong I was!
The rules for CWU include a mandatory drop bag (79l Ortlieb Bag that cannot weigh more than 20kg), so for an 8-day race in possibly inclement weather, one of the first challenges was ensuring that everything I might possibly need for the week would fit within the drop bag weight allowance, and as importantly, squeeze into the limited size of the Ortlieb bag which always seemed to be a lot smaller than the 79l volume would suggest. That entailed a number of trade-offs – should I take more than one pair of shoes in different sizes to deal with foot-swell and to allow for wearing waterproof socks? How much and what type of trail food should I take (CWU doesn’t allow you to take any food from the camps for daytime consumption, so you have to pack everything yourself)? How much additional protein-rich recovery food (biltong, shakes powder etc.) should I take with me? How much spare clothing should I take, and in particular, how many pairs of (bulky) waterproof socks? How many (heavy) power banks should I take with me, given that I’ll need to recharge GPS devices and mobile phones and there will be no mains electricity access during the race? Should I take extra clothes to keep warm during the evenings in camp?
After a lot of packing and repacking I ended up managing to squeeze everything into the Ortlieb bag, and the weight came to 20.0kg, right on the limit. That’s what I call optimisation! I had decided to err on the side of conservatism in terms of what I might need on the trails themselves – so went with 8 pairs of waterproof socks (2xDexshells, 2xOtters, and 4x360Dry), 3 pairs of shoes (size 11, 11.5 and 12) and economised a little bit on what I might need in the camp itself, figuring that the big unknown for me would be conditions on the trails so it would be better to cater for all possible eventualities and give myself plenty of options.
I had booked the Caledonian Sleeper that would take me directly up to Fort William, so found myself at Euston Station on the Friday night alongside another 10 or so fellow “Wrathers” with the same Ortlieb bags, all of whom had the same idea in terms of travel plans. A lovely touch was a bagpiper on the platform, who serenaded us onto the train in the traditional Scottish manner – I have no idea whether or not this was organised or impromptu, but it certainly established the atmosphere! I was hoping the getting the sleeper service would take some of the stress out of the journey up, but the constant clickety-clack of the train made it hard to sleep, and I managed only a couple of hours of proper sleep before we pulled into Fort William in the late morning. Registration was scheduled for the late afternoon, followed by pre-race dinner, so I spent the day buying some additional dry bags and meeting up with two of my fellow runners and Tent 9 tent-mates, Serge Gwynne (an ex-colleague from Oliver Wyman) and Jonathan Burnhams (whom I’d met on the Northern Traverse race 7 weeks earlier). For all of us, this was the largest race that we’d done, so there was nervous anticipation all round. Over dinner, I chatted with another Northern Traverser, Andy Heaney, and discovered that he would also be on one of the safety teams in this year’s Summer Spine, the next race that I’m entered for, so I would likely be seeing him again shortly!
Day 1 Fort William to Glenfinnan (33km, 588m vertical)
The 270 starters had been grouped into three separate starting waves, so while I was in Wave 1 and Serge was in Wave 2, with only 30 minutes separating the start times we shared a cab to take us and our heavy drop bags to Fort William FC for weighing and dropping, and to pick up our satellite tracking devices – large, walkie-talkie sized 2-way transceivers that could function even in the absence of any mobile network coverage. After walking down to the quayside, each wave of runners caught the ferry to Trislaig on the opposite side of the loch from Fort William. A bagpiper stood on the shoreline piping out a greeting to us as we disembarked.
The rain fell steadily, and we were faced with the first decision – whether or not to wear waterproof trousers at the start. I started off with them on, figuring that at a minimum I should try to stay dry while waiting for the race to begin. Then the rain stopped and the temperature seemed to warm up, so I took them off. Shortly after, it got colder and the rain re-started, so I put them on again. By 10:55, the 90 or so runners in Wave 1 gathered by the start line and listened to another bagpipe performance – goodness knows how cold and wet he must have been by now – before counting down to the official start of CWU 2022.
Day 1 is a relatively short day at 34km – similar to the Prologue stage of the Tour de France – and the first 10km runs on the road alongside the sealoch of Loch Linnhe. While two of the pre-race favourites Simon Roberts and Howard Dracup disappeared in front of us at the head of a leading group, I settled into a small group of 5 runners at a similar pace to myself, including a couple of veterans of other races, Gary Chapman (multiple Winter Spine finisher) and Megan James (2019 Dragon’s Back finisher). We maintained a steady 10-11km/h pace until the first checkpoint where the road turns away from the loch, transitioning to double-track as it makes its way up the valley of Cona Glen. The drizzle continued to fall, so I was pretty happy with my choice to wear waterproof trousers, and it wasn’t so hot that I was in any danger of overheating, particularly with my jacket open and sleeves rolled up. Although the gradient was now uphill, it was shallow enough to keep running without using my poles, although by now the field had spread out quite a lot and it felt as though we were running pretty much on our own. After just over 2 hours, we reached the 20km point as the gradient started to steepen and we commenced the main uphill of the day, forcing us into power-hiking mode. It wasn’t a long climb, perhaps only 200m or so of vertical, but the conditions underfoot became wetter as we climbed and as the path flattened out at the top we faced a couple of ankle-deep river crossings, while the path itself became a shallow, rocky rivulet channelling the water downhill.
I started running again, keen to test out my downhill speed while at the same time making sure I didn’t over-cook it and trash my quads, conscious that there were another 7 long days ahead of me. Still, after a couple of rockier sections that slowed me down, I was able to get back to the 10km/h pace that I’d been managing earlier on the road and track sections and it wasn’t that long before we came to the forest road and a final 2km section that led to the end of Stage 1. By now the field had bunched up somewhat again, and 5 or 6 of us all arrived within a minute or two of each other – Gary, Megan and Wade Repta who had come for the race all the way from Vancouver. We’d find ourselves bumping into each other quite a lot during the coming 7 days!
I’d finished Day 1 in a time of 3h49m, slightly behind my target of 3h34m but nothing to be concerned about as I’d come through it all without any major problems, had a better sense now of the likely underfoot conditions (very wet!), was in 57th place out of the 270 starters, and most importantly felt strong in my legs and properly warmed up. Serge and Jonathan finished shortly after me, and we were all pretty happy with how the first day had gone. One of our other tent companions, Despina Berdeni, had come home in just over 3 hours to put her in 2nd place in the women's race, and in the top 10 overall - really impressive!
Day 2 Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn (57km, 2,030m vertical)
Day 2 – the first of the four long days, and our first taste of true wilderness with the route crossing the peninsula of Knoydart – started easily enough, with a road / path section under Glenfinnan Viaduct and then leading up Glenn Finnan itself (the valley) before turning into a double-track that rose towards a saddle point at the head of the valley. As the path descended towards CP1 there were a number of small stream crossings and the conditions underfoot became rougher and wetter before improving again as the path entered a long forested section. So far so good.
As the route left the forest, there was another, smaller climb and we faced our first big river crossing, perhaps 6 or 7m wide, knee-deep and fast-flowing. I entered the water gingerly, not having forded a river of this depth in trail running gear before, and after only a couple of steps managed to lose my footing on the bottom and fall onto my back. Although I was thoroughly soaked, I managed to grab onto some rocks to regain my footing and struggled to the other side. Luckily all my gear was sealed in dry bags inside my pack, so although I was wet, none of my spare warm layers were wet and my mobile phone etc was well-protected. Still, it was not the best start and I resolved to be extra careful in feeling my way with my feet across the bottom on subsequent crossings to make absolutely sure of my footing.
The path, comprising rock, mud and bog in equal measure, descended towards Loch Nevis, before bearing right over a small headland and then dropping onto the salt marsh flats of the estuary of the River Carnach. It was very scenic, but at the same time, not easy to run on, the marsh flats absorbing just enough of your momentum to slow you down rather than give you a helpful “bounce” and the frequent pools and channels of water cutting across the marshes meant that you were constantly stopping to jump over or go around something. By now I had caught up with a small group, including Megan from the day before. As we made our way up the River Carnach valley, the runners strung out along the flood plain looked like ants next to the huge Munroes on our right hand side. It was slow progress up the valley, not made any easier by all our shoes and socks being completely waterlogged, but eventually we rounded the rocky shoulder of Luinne Bheinn to start the final major climb of the day to Gleann Undalain and the descent towards Loch Hourn. From being right on my target time at CP1, by the time we reached CP3 and the loch, more than 8 hours had now passed and I was an hour behind my target, which just shows how slow the progress had been.
On the map, the final section by the side of loch towards Kinloch Hourn looked easy enough, but it proved to be anything but – a gnarly sequence of rises and falls with mixed ground that made it hard to keep up a steady rhythm. By way of compensation the views up and down the loch were spectacular. I lifted my pace somewhat and moved ahead of Megan, catching up with another runner from the previous day, Wade Repta, before trying to lift the pace again just as we reached what must be one of the largest forests of rhododendron that I’ve ever seen. The path plunged between the giant plants before emerging 15 minutes later with the campsite in view at the head of the loch, and just a short run along the road before coming to the end of Day 2 and a time of 10h05m. It had been a long, tough day and while my time was worse than I had originally planned for, it was enough to move me from 57th to 50th in the overall standings. I guess everyone had found it a hard day!
Day 3 Kinloch Hourn to Achnashellach (66km, 2,680m vertical)
Having slept quite poorly on the first night, I slept better after the long haul of Day 2 and so felt quite refreshed as Day 3 dawned, to be met by the news that one of the pre-race favourites, Simon Roberts, winner of both the 2021 Dragon’s Back Race and the 2022 Spine Challenger North, both of them in incredibly fast times, had been forced to pull out of the race with injury. This was of course quite a big shock and reinforced the extent to which success in this race is as much a question of luck and attrition as it is about speed.
Day 3 saw the race leave Knoydart and enter Kintail, and was meant to be the longest, hardest day of the whole race, with four large climbs, over 2,500m of vertical, the highest point of the whole race at 820m and the most aggressive cut-offs. I expected quite a few people would be timed out today, and made a mental note myself to start out fast and build up a bit of a buffer. It also had one of the scenic highlights of the race, the Falls of Glomach, so there was plenty to look forward to. With the temperature a little warmer, I decided to wear shorts rather than 3/4 leggings, and I was glad I had done so as the effort of the first big climb towards the Saddle and the 820m high point soon raised my core temperature. It was a long, steep climb and there was quite a crowd of runners snaking up the hillside, each picking a slightly different line. Having set out at 7:10am, by the time I had reached the top I had moved to near the front of the pack and then managed to pick up some more places on what proved quite a pleasant and slightly technical, rocky descent towards Shiel Bridge and Loch Duich, notwithstanding a few more stream crossings. As we reached CP1 there was a small café open by the side of the checkpoint – I was strongly tempted to get a muffin and a coffee, but there was a queue and the next few miles of the course was on flat roads and track, so I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to pick up some time and hopefully get back early into camp.
By now the sun had come out and I had put away my waterproof top for the first time in the race. I kept up a running pace past the Kintail Outdoor Centre, where several people were applauding the runners as they went by, and through a wooded section before starting the long climb up towards the Falls of Glomach. The path remained generally in good condition, and a pleasant breeze prevented any overheating. The falls themselves are invisible until you are right upon them, rounding a corner as you enter the side of the gorge. They are an impressive site, even if to get a full view of them you have to take a 10 minute detour off the main path, followed by a steep climb back up.
A short descent took me to the valley floor and CP2, 90 minutes ahead of the cut-off and close to but slightly over my target time. A pleasant section of double track alongside a loch and then river took me to the third climb of the day and the terrain became boggier and more broken, with yet more rivers that had to be forded on the descent. As the valley floor widened out, the ground became even more boggy, and it was a relief when we came to the final climb up to the cliffs overlooking Achnashellach. By now, I’d been overtaken by several of the faster elite runners, including Despina, and I was struggling to hold onto the coat-tails of one of the other leading female runners, Vicky Savage, as well as a German runner, Eckhard Seher. After a couple of kilometres of relatively straightforward descent, the path passed into a wooded section, and from being well-defined hard-pack, it deteriorated into a narrow, muddy, overgrown mess where your feet sank every other step and progress ground again to a near-halt. The bizarre thing about the Cape Wrath Trail is that the underfoot terrain varies enormously over relatively short distances. After about 1km of scrambling through undergrowth, I finally reached the camp just before 6:40pm in a time of 11h25m, which was pretty much bang on my target so I went to bed that night happy with the day’s work. Meanwhile, Despina had now moved into first place in the women’s race, and was in the top 10 overall across men’s and women’s races. The last 2 days however had really taken their toll on the field with 80 runners having now retired from the race.
Day 4 Achnashellach to Kinlochewe (35km, 1,713m vertical)
Although ostensibly a shorter day, Day 4 proved anything but easy. The weather deteriorated quite a bit from the day before, and we were faced with heavier rain, colder temperatures and stronger winds as we set out. Given it was a shorter day, and the cut-offs would not be an issue, I set off later at 8:30 and found myself running through the Achnashellach Forest alongside Howard Dracup, another veteran of Dragon's Back and Spine Challenger North. It wasn’t long before he pressed on ahead of me, but I tried to keep him in sight and use him as a guide to pace myself as we worked our way up the first climb, a 600m ascent to the saddle between the Munroes of Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor. It was rocky but the path was generally well-defined and not too waterlogged, so compared to the climbs of the last 2 days progress was relatively swift. I had passed about 20 backmarkers by the time I neared the top of the climb, as the wind increased and temperature dropped. As I passed over the saddle, I was met with 40mph+ headwinds and cold, wet sleet. The path also became quite steep and technical, and this was certainly the toughest section I’d faced so far during the race. The sleet made it hard to see (particularly with glasses), the buffeting high winds made it hard to maintain balance and the steep wet rocky slope meant that any fall here would have serious consequences. I took the next few hundred metres REALLY carefully! Eventually the slope eased and while the weather didn’t improve, the path became easier and it was possible to move more quickly. Although conditions weren’t great, and most people were choosing to walk / hike this descent, I was able to go back to running the descent and reached CP1, the only checkpoint of the day, at 11am, more than 90 minutes ahead of the cut-off and 20 minutes ahead of my target time.
The second half of the day saw another climb up the massif of Beinn Eighe to the famous sight of Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair with the backdrop of the Three Sisters, which in good weather is one of the highlights of the whole Cape Wrath Trail in terms of natural scenery. However, with the cloud level low, and continued high winds, heavy sleet and rain, there was going to be little chance of any views today. The climb up – another 500m or so of vertical – proved relatively uneventful, as the path was generally good albeit under water for most of the way. I passed some more backmarkers as I rounded the bulk of Beinn Eighe for the final climb up to the lake, and the waterfall that cascaded over the lip of the cwm in which the lake lay. I was expecting the winds to calm down somewhat due to the protecting shield of the Three Sisters, but the winds grew even stronger and as I forded the rivers at the head of the cwm and fought against the strong cross-winds that were blasting from the left, I saw nothing to my right except banks of low cloud. So much for the amazing scenic views!
At this point the path completely disappeared, and we were forced to switch to following the GPS tracks as we commenced the long descending traverse across what was first a rocky slope and then a steep slope of mixed terrain, comprising large boulders, streams, bog and heathery tussocks. Traverses of steep slopes, particularly in trail shoes, are often much harder work than uphills, as the sideways slope puts a lot of stress on your ankles and knees, particularly when the terrain is as treacherous as it was here. Although I found myself continuing to catch up some other runners, progress was incredibly slow, and I had to keep on searching among the rough ground for what felt like the best line to take in order to follow the direction of the GPS tracks. Although only about 4km, this section took about an hour to clear, before the ground flattened out and progress became easier. Easier in relative terms, that is. It was still a trackless, waterlogged marsh, with suction bog and pools covered in spaghnum that meant it was a cold, wet trudge rather than run.
The final part of the day’s course involved a short climb out of the marsh up the side of a ridge followed by a descent down to Kinlochewe. Although the wind had eased somewhat during the marshes, as we climbed back up to the top of the ridge, the temperature dropped and the winds picked up again. It was getting seriously cold, with the windchill making it feel well below zero, and as I reached a short flat section at the top of the ridge, I came across a small crowd of 5-6 surrounding another runner, who lay prone on the ground in their emergency bag. I briefly stopped, but in these situations, if everything is already in hand, as it appeared to be, additional people can just get in the way and potentially create more problems if they themselves get into trouble with hypothermia as their own core temperature drops once they stop moving. I pressed on, along with a couple of other runners who were running at a similar pace.
After descending along several more km of poor quality rocky path towards the valley floor, it entered woodland and suddenly turned into a flat asphalt road on which running was easy. It was still about 3km of winding path, and as I ran towards the campsite, I passed Megan and a couple of other runners and we traded comments about how utterly tough today had been. It was with huge surprise that I found out when I reached camp that I’d finished in 6h22m, 9m ahead of my target for the day, and had moved into 34th place in the overall standings. Over dinner I managed to speak to one of the runners who had found and helped rescue the stricken runner whom I’d passed earlier – it turned out that they were suffering from hypothermia and had been airlifted off the mountain by helicopter, a sober reminder of the risks inherent in the mountains, even in late May. This was also reflected in the drop-out rate, with a further 67 retirements to reduce the field even further to 123 runners from the original 270, the highest drop-out rate in the race's history with 4 days still left to go.
Day 5 Kinlochewe to Inverbroom (42km, 1,563m vertical)
I continued to have relatively fitful sleep in the tent, but a consequence of finishing in under 7 hours the previous day was that I had now been given a mandatory start time of after 8am, which at least meant that I could have another relatively relaxed start to the day. After doing all my yoga and stretching, consuming yet another giant breakfast, and depositing my drop bag, I left the camp at 8.30am and started the 2km road section that kicked off the day’s running. It was cloudy and damp, and while the weather forecast was for similar cold, wind and rain conditions to the previous day, there was not any rain (at least so far) as the road transitioned to double-track and made its way through the valley of Gleann na Muice in a very gentle upward gradient. It was not long before the faster elite runners passed me by, but I kept to my own somewhat slower running pace as I knew my own limits, and what I needed in order hit my target time for the day. The first checkpoint at 14km was reached after 1h45m, slightly ahead of schedule and the start of a gradual climb over broken ground to yet another saddle. Perhaps because of the shelter the surrounding higher peaks provided, the weather continued to be far milder than the forecast had suggested, and as I passed over the saddle, I was able to run quite easily along the downhill path which ran to the right-hand side of a stream beneath the steep valley slopes further above me on the right. There were a few small stream crossings, but nothing as significant as on the previous days, and conditions were pleasant, for pretty much the first time in the race.
As the stream turned left, the path continued, climbing up the slope of the valley and broadening out into double track. With little or no rain, and the track in good condition with relatively little standing water, running conditions were good and I was able to accelerate the pace into almost a sprint as the slope flattened out and the track began to descend to the right of another stream along yet another river valley, this time with some quite scenic waterfalls and rapids. As the valley opened out, moor turned to farmland, the sun actually came out and it began to feel almost like a typical day in late May. I reached CP2 in 4h45, 7 minutes ahead of target, and feeling in great shape for the final climb of the day.
Given the sun I stopped briefly to take off my waterproof trousers – given the weather forecast it was the right decision to wear them earlier on but now I was in more danger of overheating than hypothermia or getting wet, and I would heat up even more on the next climb. A very steep but short section through the farmland soon led to a flatter uphill section across moorland, but with the weather dry, the wind did its job in keeping me cool and preventing overheating. After about 5km, the slope flattened out, and we could see the Day 5 campsite far below, at the foot of a steep, zig-zag descent. My legs were still feeling really strong, and while the path was rocky, it was mostly dry with the grass on either side being spongy rather than slippery mud. If your quads and knees were up to it – and mine felt like they were – this was a great runnable technical descent. As I plunged down the slope, stopping only occasionally when the rocks were a little bit too large for a pure scree-running approach, I passed a couple of familiar faces in Jonathan and Wade, and soon found myself on the short road section that led into the camp in Inverbroom.
6h17m for the day, 3 minutes under my target and by far the most enjoyable day so far of the race. I did wonder though whether my aggressive approach for the last big descent of the day would impact my legs for the days ahead. I spent the evening gorging on Biltong, peperami and protein shakes, while attempting to massage and compress my legs to mitigate the risk of DOMS the following day. The only downer of the day was the news that our tent-mate Despina had been forced to withdraw from the race with an injured and swollen shin / ankle.
Day 6 Inverbroom to Ichnadamph (67km, 1,882m vertical)
Although Day 6 is the longest day by distance of the race, it is meant to be one of the “easier” days comprising two big climbs, one at the start and one at the end of the day, sandwiching 35km of fairly flat, runnable double-track. The truth turned out somewhat differently! The weather forecast of only a couple of days ago had promised that this was the day when the weather would start to improve before what looked like dry conditions at the weekend, but the night before Race Director Shane Ohly had warned us that the forecast had deteriorated again and to plan for another day of tough weather.
Although it was a long day, my fast finish on Day 5 meant that I had another post-8am start, so after another heavy breakfast and doing all my muscle-loosening exercises, I headed out at 8.20am. Although the first 2km was along roads, my legs already felt unnaturally heavy and running was like fighting my way through treacle. As the route turned off onto double track through Inverbroom Forest and started to climb, I felt somewhat more comfortable – even if I was going slower, I no longer felt that I was going a lot slower than I should be going. It was cold, damp and a steady drizzle was falling, which pretty much reflected my own spirits as I realised that today was going to be one of those long days that you just have to find a way of getting through. As the slope flattened out and passed between a couple of higher peaks on either side, the path disappeared completely and became a pathless peat bog plateau, covered in spaghnum, cross-crossed by countless streams and populated with numerous pools of standing water (most of which were disguised by the spaghnum). Every few steps you would find yourself sinking shin-deep, occasionally knee-deep, in mud or water, and any kind of rapid progress was just impossible. It was like Day 2 all over again, only worse.
As the GPS track headed North-East, the route descended and the peat turned into a morass of hills, valleys and crevasses. I was caught by the bearded figure of Paul Manson, although I managed to hold onto his coattails from then on, such was the slow pace on such difficult ground. We had a couple of large river crossings, where the water was maybe knee or even thigh-deep in places and it took a while to find a feasible place to cross. Eventually the ground eased somewhat and we reached the first checkpoint at Loach an Daimh, which is where the double track section commenced. With much of the next 35 km being through low-lying land, I was a little concerned about water, so took a final opportunity to top up my water bottles in one of the small burns that was flowing in from the side, and started to run along the track. It wasn’t a fast pace by any means – 8km/h – but not bad for Day 6 of a multi-day race and faster than before. From reaching CP1 in just over 3 hours – about 15 minutes longer than plan – the next 32km went by in 4 fours dead, which got me back on track again, even if the weather had started to deteriorate into steady rain, with an increasingly strong and cold headwind impeding progress. Although I’d now lost complete touch with the leading group, I had passed a number of other runners by the time I reached CP3 and was beginning to get optimistic about how the day would finish.
Because I had been running so much, and had also been suffering from some digestive discomfort, I had not felt much need to eat a lot during the day, and had also been generating so much body heat that any additional layers beyond my base layer + waterproof jacket would have been superfluous. As the path left CP3, road and then track gave way after a few km to a thin, indistinct path that wound its way slowly up the River Oykell valley. Soon the path disappeared entirely, and you had to pick your way up the tumbled slopes of the valley following the GPS traces, although this frequently meant lots of zig-zagging and small climbs over rises followed by descents back to the GPS line. As progress slowed, the headwind became stronger and colder. Everything seemed to be going slower – not just my legs, but my mind as well, and I started to get some occasional dizzy, light-headed spells as I struggled forward. There were several river crossings to negotiate, during one of which I managed to slip and fall into the river, banging my hip on a rock in the process. The combination of cold wind and cold water made things even more miserable and further ate away at my mind. By the time I reached the top of the pass, my pace was reduced to a pitiful crawl, and I was feeling really quite disoriented, and also a little bit scared of becoming hypothermic. I struggled to get my warm gloves and hat on, and to roll down my sleeves, but was having difficulty coordinating my movements. Finally I managed to get them on, and consumed my two chocolate bars plus the remainder of my Haribos in a desperate attempt to refuel myself. Although the wind was now making me feel extremely cold, I was able to keep moving forward and eventually started to warm up again just as the path started to become easier as it descended towards Ichnadamph and the Day 6 camp.
I arrived at the camp at 7:10pm, almost an hour later than my original plan, having taking 3h40m to cover the final 18km, but with a huge amount of relief at having completed the toughest day to date and avoiding what could have been quite a serious situation at the top of the final climb. As I warmed myself up in camp that evening, I resolved to be extra cautious over the final 2 days of the race.
Day 7 Ichnadamph to Kinlochbervie (60km, 2,094m vertical)
Day 7. The last big day of the race. The day that if you complete, you’re pretty much guaranteed to finish . Not as long as Day 6, but maybe even harder. And certainly more beautiful, with possibly the best scenery of the whole week.
The weather forecast had been for Day 7 to be clear, with a high pressure zone pushing in from the North to displace the unsettled weather of the past week. No such luck. Heavy rain had fallen during the night, and the ground of the campsite was sodden when we emerged from our tents in the morning. Still somewhat shaken by the near-miss of yesterday afternoon, I put on my full thermal leggings, as well as waterproof bottoms, and shifted to wearing my size 12 TrailTalons along with 2 pairs of waterproof socks and liner socks, before setting out at 8:20am. This was super conservative, but I’d learned during the Winter Spine that in bad conditions, it pays to be conservative and did not want to take any chances.
Almost immediately I hit the first climb of the day, 600m of vertical towards yet another saddle and the long trackless descent towards the highest waterfall in Scotland, Eas a Chual Aluinn. The climb up was relatively uneventful, the path reasonable by the standards of the week albeit very wet underfoot with a couple of river crossings to keep things interesting. After the top of the saddle however, the path disappeared pretty much completely, and we had to pick our way down through a slope of broken peat bog, the line of descent twisting and turning through mushroom-like hills and crevasse-like valleys. Whenever the slope became more even, it in turn became even muddier and slippery, making it almost impossible to maintain any kind of rhythm. Lindsay Hamoudi, number 5 in the overall placings and who had moved into our tent at the end of Day 6, caught up with me but even he was finding it difficult going. As we neared the bottom of the slope, we rounded some cliffs and entered the valley leading towards Loch Glencoul, with the cataract of Eas a Chual Aluinn on the left hand side, and another waterfall, its twin perhaps, facing it on the opposite side of the valley. It was quite an impressive sight, and well worth spending a few minutes to take photos of the view.
As we crossed the river and made away along the valley floor, the remains of a ruined wire fence did its best to trip us up and it continued to be slow going until we neared the loch and the path became more distinct, broadening out into a double track after passing Glencoul Bothy a further couple of km along the route. The track climbed steeply with 200m of vertical over a rocky shoulder, providing some stunning views up the loch towards Kylesky and its striking bridge before dropping down again to Loch Glendhu, where a photographer lay in wait by Glendhu Bothy and its ponies to snap us as we ran past. I was making good progress along the decent track, and shortly after caught up with Amy Sutherland, whose progress had been slowed to a walk due to painful shins. Luckily I still had plenty of co-codamol on me, as I’d not really needed any painkillers in the race so far, so was able to share some of them with her, and was delighted when I found out afterwards that she’d made it through the day, finishing 30 minutes before the final cut-off.
After reaching CP1, the track started the long climb up the slopes of Ben Dreavie, the only summit that we would actually pass over during the course of the race. Even at only 510m high, the fact that almost all the climbs on the course commence at sea level meant that this was still a 500m+ vertical climb and while the track was good, it still involved a number of river crossings and was quite wet underfoot. During the ascent I had caught up with some more runners, and there were five of us as we reached the summit cairn, and its superb panoramic views not just of the surrounding mountains, but of alternating lochs and headlands and hanging under the horizon, the grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Ben Dreavie is the last big climb of the day, and indeed we would not pass over any higher point from now on during the race, so we paused for a couple of minutes to high-five each other while taking in the vista. The descent to CP2 on the shores of Loch Stack, while pathless, felt that much easier now that we knew that we’d completed all of the major climbs of the whole race, and the fact that I was more than an hour behind my target when I reached it didn’t bother me as much as it might have done earlier on – I was more than an hour ahead of the cut-off times and I knew now that I would finish the race.
The day still had a sting in the tail however. The route from CP2 to CP3, despite not having any climbs, was utterly awful. Although there was a path, it was a pitiful thing, a foot or less wide, perched on the side of a right-to-left slope as it threaded its way alongside river, then loch, then river again. The path itself comprised nothing but liquid, slippery mud, and virtually every step threatened to tip you sideways down the slope into the river. Poles didn’t really help either, as the heather either side made it hard to get any purchase. Heather roots too lay hidden in the liquid mud and threatened to trip you up as your legs sank with each step up to your shins and knees. Painfully slow does not come close to describing how long it felt that this stage lasted. The reality is that it took 2h15m to cover 11km, less than 5km/h for what on the map looked like flat ground.
Throughout the day I’d been suffering from some stomach / digestion problems, and it was a great relief when I reached CP3 at the road junction at Rhiconich, and was able to use the toilets there to sort myself out. The final 7km to the campsite in Kinlochbervie was on road, which while hard on the feet, still felt a whole lot better than the previous 11km of mudfest. After an hour of walk/run on the slopes around the loch (hillier than you would think), I caught up with Serge on the final descent to the campsite, 11h40m after setting out that morning, to make this the longest and hardest day so far.
Day 8 Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath (25km, 941m vertical)
I started the final day painfully early, having been given a 7.15am to 7.30am start time window based on my overall placing at the end of Day 7 (24th overall). My drop bag had by now become noticeably less full than at the start of the race, with the bulk of the trail food and protein / Tailwind powders having now been consumed, and while wet clothing weighed the bag down, the bag was now much easier to close. It felt like a long time ago that we had started out in Fort William, and there was definitely a relaxed, almost celebratory atmosphere in the camp as the surviving 104 competitive runners realised that they were now within touching distance of the finish line. After my gastro-intestinal problems the previous day, I stayed clear of the baked beans and vegan sausage option at breakfast, going for carb-heavy waffles and porridge, and after a brief trip to the bathroom, left just after 7.30am and was soon trotting along the 7km road section towards the first checkpoint.
After turning the corner at Blairmore onto the double track leading towards Sandwood Bay, the weather took a turn for the worse as we were hit with a sudden heavy downpour and I was forced to put on my waterproof trousers before my leggings become thoroughly soaked. I pressed on and found myself running alongside Wade again, who I’d first run with at the end of Day 1 on the way into Glenfinnan. As the rain eased again, we made our way over the dunes and arrived at Sandwood Beach together, pausing for a few selfies, and spying the faint fingertip of the Cape Wrath Lighthouse on the horizon, before pressing on towards the first of a number of climbs up the various headlands that lay between us and the finish line.
The climbs were steep, but none of them were too lengthy, and while the descents in between them had their fair share of soft ground, in general it was firm but springy and made for near-perfect trail running conditions. Even so, I still managed to step in one boggy pool up to my thighs, and tripped on a small river crossing, bruising my hip on a rock, but what on paper looked like almost 10km of trackless moor proved to be relatively benign. By this time, I’d moved ahead of Wade and caught up with Dave Douglas, another veteran of many ultras including the same Ultra Trail Monte Rosa in 2019 that I had taken part in. It turned out that he had arrived at the Gandegg Hut only a couple of minutes ahead of me, where almost 100 of us had then been held while the race stewards took the decision to abandon the race because of the blizzard that was by then raging – a small world! It didn’t seem long at all before we could see the double-track to the lighthouse ahead of us, and 10 minutes later I was rounding the final headland with the lighthouse right ahead. I took my phone out to video the final moments and crossed the line in a final time of 64h30m for the whole race, 23rd place overall and 21st in the men’s race. With Serge and Jonathan (with an incredibly fast 3h30m leg on Day 8) also finishing the race, it was a very happy Tent 9 that evening!
This was a tough race, and in terms of physical effort required, I would certainly put it up there as the most challenging one that I have done to date. A large part of this was down to the conditions – as Shane mentioned in the Race Director's Report, these were by far the worst weather and underfoot conditions of any of the four CWU editions that have been held to date, as reflected in the 38% completion rate compared to an historical average of 62% in the previous three editions. I would certainly rank it alongside a full Winter Spine Race in terms of overall degree of challenge, with the longer, 8-day duration, more relentless poor underfoot conditions and general remoteness / lack of support offsetting the fact that it’s a stage race rather than non-stop. I don’t think it would be possible, on safety grounds, to hold a non-stop race over the CWU course in the way the Spine Race manages it on the Pennine Way – it would simply be too dangerous for the participants. The thing to bear in mind is that this is NOT a trail running race – it is a mountain endurance race (in winter conditions this year) with sections where trail running is advantageous. That’s an important distinction, as I think I would have struggled to finish the race had I not already gained a lot of experience of winter mountain conditions and winter trail races.
In terms of my own result, I was very happy with where I ended up, and I think it’s a fair reflection of my own level and the training that I had put in. Going into the race, I had targeted (based on the 2021 results) a range of 60-70 hours, with 60 hours as my stretch goal corresponding to a “top 10%” performance. As it was, finishing in 23rd position overall out of 270 starters put me in the top 10%, and while 64h30m was in the middle of the 60-70 hour range, the much harder conditions this year meant that it was probably equivalent to a 60 hour finish in 2021 race terms. Looking at the day-by-day results, my worst days relative to other runners in the 20th-30th range of overall standings were Days 2, 6 and 7, which corresponds to my own experience during the race in terms of which days I found relatively hard, and generally the parts where I performed worst were those where the terrain was flat but wet, boggy and muddy underfoot. By contrast, I tended to do best on rocky, technical uphill / downhill sections. That gives me some confidence as I look forward to my next major multi-day stage race, the 6-day Dragon’s Back Race across Wales in September which features much more of this terrain.
Navigation & Terrain
Navigation was generally very easy. Although the field did get strung out somewhat during the day and the course passed through extremely remote country, being a stage race meant that the field was far more compressed than it would have been on a non-stop race, you were always travelling in daylight and you were generally never more than 1km away from the next runner (ahead or behind). With the course also largely being on open moorland, passing through valleys and over saddle points, even on pathless sections the general direction forward was reasonably clear-cut even if picking the best line to take was much harder.
The terrain and conditions underfoot were a different matter. Compared to other races with sections of rough terrain (such as the Spine or Northern Traverse), conditions on CWU were both worse – far muddier and boggier – and more relentless, by an order of magnitude. I used poles on pretty much every section except for when it was flat, runnable road / track or technical downhill (when I needed my arms for balance), and during the race converged on the same double-waterproof sock approach as I had used on the Winter Spine as the best way of keeping my feet dry and warm.
Food & Drink
The food in the camps was all vegan / vegetarian and was generally outstanding. I did have some digestion issues during the race – for the first couple of days I was a little bit constipated, and then had a mild case of the opposite on Days 6 and 7, and with the benefit of hindsight, I would probably have taken some more protein-rich snacks and eaten more of the carb-rich options from the camp meals, but generally I was OK.
During the day, I used a mixture of amino acids and Tailwind in my drinks bottles, and (partly because of the wet weather) found it very easy to refill them from the plentiful mountain streams we encountered. Again, this on the whole worked well, and I think the combination of amino acids during the day and protein shakes / protein-rich foods in the evenings helped with recovery. For trail snacks, the combination of jelly babies, Haribos and chocolate also worked well, although I ended up relying too heavily on just Haribos and would have welcomed more variety in my various chocolate bar options. I did take some porridge bars as well, but typically ended up eating them as a second breakfast just before I set off in the morning.
Overall, however, I feel that I got the fuelling pretty much right, with the only exception being Day 6 when the combination of under-eating during day, under-estimating how much energy I’d consumed on the central 30km running section, and a big climb with strong, cold winds at the end of the day caused me serious (and avoidable) problems.
Camp Admin and Recovery
In previous race reports, blogs and on the participants’ FB forum, many people have commented on the importance of camp admin and being efficient in terms of how you use the time you have in camp, both in the morning and evening. I can only second all these comments. Particularly on the long days, you may only have a couple of hours in camp before going to bed, and I tried to stick to a relatively rigid checklist of the things that I did when I got into camp – changing into dry clothes and leaving wet clothes to dry (in as much as they could do given the weather); getting some food, in particular carbs (chips), protein (Biltong, peperami and a protein shake) and hydration (electrolytes); stretching / using compression bands on my muscles; recharging my Garmin watch / mobile phone; sorting out snacks, drinks bottles and clothing for the following day; studying the route and profile for the following day; toilet / washing up / cleaning teeth. Similarly, I had a pretty rigid process for the mornings as well – stretch / roll / compression, breakfast, toilet, get changed, pack drop bag. On the long days, it certainly helped getting into camp a few hours before the 10pm cutoff, and on the shorter days, I’d typically get in around 2-3pm, so would have plenty of time sort everything out and relax.
I was expecting to have a lot more difficulties with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) than I did, but a large part of that I think was down to the number of long, hilly races that I had done in the run-up to CWU – doing the Northern Traverse in particular had given me 7,000m of downhill training in April, and doing three 50k-ish ultras at the end of April / early May had given me another 3,000m, so my quads and knees were already in good shape. Using the compression bands every evening and morning certainly helped as well, and the reduction in stiffness after using them was very tangible. My hips were probably the one part of my body where I felt DOMS / stiffness, despite using a massage ball on them every morning / night – something I’ll need to bear in mind in my strength / conditioning work going forward.
Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12, Montane Featherlight (waist)
Shoes: Inov8 TrailFly 300G (Size 11, size 11.5), Inov8 TrailTalon 290 (Size 12)
Waterproofs: Montane Spine Jacket (Top), Inov8 Ultrashell (Bottom)
Non-waterproof: 1000 mile compression socks
Waterproof: DexShell Otter, 360Dry
Shorts: Montane Via Full-Length tights, 2XU 3/4 compression shorts, 2XU compression shorts
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck, Montane Thermal ZipNeck, Montane Protium Fleece
Underwear: Runderwear long boxer shorts
Fingerless gloves: COOLOO Cycling Gloves
Thin thermal gloves: Anquier Winter Touch Screen Running Gloves
Waterproof thermal gloves: LERWAY Winter Warm Gloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, Multiple buffs
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 (+ spare)
Headtorch / Chest torch: LEDLenser Neo 10 x 2