For those who don’t know, Cape Wrath Ultra is one of the UK’s bucket list ultras, alongside the Spine and the Dragons Back. Four hundred km. Eight days. Starting at Fort William, winding its way through the remote Scottish Highlands and ending up at the UK’s north western-most point, Cape Wrath lighthouse. Breath taking scenery — which for at least 50% of the route, is only accessible via some kind of guided/supported trip. It is truly remote and beautiful.
All of these events are tough. If you’re reading this you already know that. All this ultra running is mad and tough in its own way. CWU has its own particular flavour of mad and tough. You immediately get a sense of this at check in as you start chatting to folk. No one is there to do it a second or third time. Once is enough. But there are lots of people who have returned — hoping that this year will be the year they finish. It’s beaten a lot of people. And in fact you come to learn that most people are there to bury a demon of some kind. Everyone is wearing their nerves differently, but there’s a palpable sense of nervous excitement in the briefing tent. Two hundred runners who’ve dedicated hours and hours to get ready for what lies ahead. Confidence is hard to hold on to.
If you watch any of the round-up video clips you’ll see that there’s a general sense of folk not knowing how long each day is. It’s not that there’s any mystery around this. It’s more a reveal of CWU’s little unique character. A ‘CWU’ km is NOT the same thing as a ‘South Stoke’ km. Just as an example, one of the days starts with a 1400m climb up to a 2km mountain ledge the width of a single running shoe followed by 30km through an unmarked bog, where you don’t know where to place your feet, where to go or whether you’ll make the check point. You can’t see whether you’re about to land on a stable tussock or end up thigh deep in bog.
You’re in a constant juggle between three attentional priorities; do I know where I’m going? Have I remembered to drink/eat/refill my water? Where the hell should I plant my foot? The concentration required is exhausting… and leaves you at risk of missing the beauty of the scenery and the conversation. Physically, imagine going for a run and forcing yourself to stop at random moments. Take your shoes off. Put them back on and start again. You lose all momentum. It takes you an hour to do 5km… and you’re chuffed with that!
Ultimately it just doesn’t help you to know how far, how high, how runnable the day’s route is… you just need to focus on getting to the next check point, and the next, and the next, right up until you see a lighthouse in the distance.
Each night you get back to camp. To a ridiculously positive cheering crew. You wash in freezing cold lochs whilst gorging on chips and soup as a pre-meal meal before the main one. FFS! Feet, Food, Sleep. Word has it that self management differentiates those who succeed from those who don’t… and the daily rush to get back to camp is not to shorten the beauty of the day, but to give you every chance of success for the next. There is NO resting on laurels until you get to that bloody lighthouse!
I was nearly 20 stone in November ‘19. Running set me free. Through CWU I beat MY demon. I’ve agency. I’ve turned my physical life around. Did I need CWU to land on that? Probably not. But every time I face adversity for the rest of my life, will I now think: “I just need to get to the next check point; I can do that, right?” Yeah. I will! For that I’m truly grateful to CWU. However, what I’m even more appreciative of, the absolute highlight of the whole experience, was that I learnt something new about myself. I had a bit of a personal epiphany. I’ve no doubt that the beauty of the scenery, the simplicity of the lifestyle, the amazing gift of time running alongside a very special soul, the need to dig so deep …. all came together, stripped away defences and brought a now treasured insight to the surface. To hit upon such a meaningful insight at my age feels like such a treasured gift. The list of memorable moments is so long; a high-five after a gruelling climb, a gorge, a waterfall, a landscape view, hearing late returning runners being cheered into camp, pickled onion Monster Munch and a can of lager in the sun with my tent mates, nailing day three, then six and seven, seeing the lighthouse, running like a dog off its lead having warmed up and fed, listening to Elbow for an hour, seeing B and Coz….. So many memorable moments. But my personal learning will never fade. Thank you CWU.