I first heard about the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) http://www.capewrathultra.com/ more two years ago when I stumbled upon a snippet in a magazine describing plans to hold the race in May 2016. Described as an 8 day expedition race weaving 400 km through the Highlands of Scotland, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. It appealed both because of the location and the supported nature of the event. I’ve been lucky to travel the world more than most and have experienced some stunning places, but the West Highlands of Scotland rank as one of the most beautiful of all. Moreover, as a Scot I seem to be genetically predisposed to thrive more in the Scottish climate than the desert, jungle or the arctic. And weighing in as I do at just over 50kg makes events where you have to carry all your kit particularly challenging!

Bliss: “supreme happiness; utter joy or contentment”

The first time I experienced bliss during a sporting event was when I did an Ironman in 2013. Having never competed in anything longer than a marathon before I was anticipating a suffer-fest. Instead I experienced more than 13 hours of happiness, elation and euphoria. It was addictive. While my flirtation with triathlon was over, I happily returned to my true love running, and became fascinated by experimenting with the pursuit of bliss. I found out that by running long distances at a slow pace in beautiful surroundings I could achieve even higher levels of bliss than I did during the Ironman. However, I’d never done more than a one-day event before so the CWU looked like the ultimate bliss research lab!

The Project

While the search for bliss was my main objective for doing the CWU, the huge challenge of preparing for an event like that was a major part of the appeal. As a runner I have always been more motivated by the process rather than the goal itself. I love all the planning and preparation. This was so much huger than anything I had ever attempted before and I had no idea if I was being realistic in entering. So my strategy was to do the absolute best preparation I possibly could and take it from there. Over the last months I have spent countless hours researching, experimenting, testing and studying kit, food, the route etc. One particular challenge was the self-navigation aspect of the race so I took myself over to the Lake District to spend a day with the wonderful Joe Faulkner from Nav4 Adventure.

As always my dear friend and coach Bjarke Kobberø from Running 26 helped me plan my training. In reality it didn’t vary that much from my normal training. However we included blocks of long runs on several consecutive days, plus a much bigger focus on hill training. This was a huge challenge as Denmark is as flat as a pancake! There is one “hill” in my local forest – actually more of a pimple than a hill in comparison to Scotland – which I have run up and down endlessly over the last months. I also included strength training with heavy weights into my programme. And while I have gradually increased my weekly mileage over recent months – way beyond the distances I have ever run before – I think that the strength training combined with swimming and regular maintenance physical therapy treatments with the man with the magic hands, Kenneth Ellefsen, has contributed to the fact that I have been feeling good and haven’t had any injuries during my training.

Getting started

I felt happy and relaxed during the last few weeks before the race. I had done the very best preparation I could and my training had gone according to plan. However, the enormity of the challenge I had signed up for hit me the last couple of days before the race. I felt overwhelmed and had difficulty sleeping. So it was quite a relief to finally get started on Sunday 22nd of May. The first couple of days were wonderful. The landscape was incredible. The company of the other runners was inspiring. The terrain was challenging. The weather was kind. All that combined with having to keep an eye on the map meant that the time flew by. Despite the lack of sleep I felt physically good and I was happy.

Crisis

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Photo by SleepMonsters

I’m not completely naïve. I wasn’t expecting to experience 8 days of non-stop total bliss and I was prepared that there would be crises along the way. When the crisis came though it wasn’t out on the route, but in the safety of my tent. Towards the end of day 2 I emerged from a pass approaching the sea as the sun was starting to go down and the scene was so stunning I had tears in my eyes. From there though there was a tedious 8km to the finish and I realised that the day had taken much, much longer than I had anticipated in my planning – over 14 hours. That was the point where I first contemplated the idea that I might not be able to finish the entire race. The next day’s route would be longer with much more ascent and we had a maximum of 16 hours – with timed checkpoints to be reach during the day. When I finally got back to the camp that evening – after 9pm having started at 7am – most of the others in my tent were already in bed. I still had to eat, make my bed and sort out my stuff for the next morning before I could go to bed – and I knew that I had to get up early the next morning to sort out my feet, pack up, eat breakfast to get on the road as early as possible. That was my absolute low point. I was tired, upset, stressed and anxious and as a result I couldn’t sleep.

 

As I lay awake I saw my goal of 8 days of bliss slipping away. In its place I could see days spent with my eyes on my watch and my map, stressfully trying to reach checkpoints in time, irritated with the terrain for slowing me down; late evenings spent fumbling around in the dark sorting out my stuff and trying not to wake my already asleep faster tent-mates; sleepless nights; stressful mornings struggling to get ready and started as quickly as possible.

I can’t remember making a decision, but I set out the next morning feeling more light-hearted and with the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it beyond Checkpoint 2 that day. In retrospect I have no idea whether I could have made Checkpoint 2 in time if I had made more of an effort. Maybe, maybe not. The truth is though that it was with a tremendous feeling of relief that I arrived at Checkpoint 2 after the cut-off time. (According to the rules if you time-out on a checkpoint you are forced to miss part of the following day, but thereafter can continue in the race as a non-competitive participant.)

New Start

That night I slept for the first time since before the start and slept like a log. A bunch of us had timed out on Day 3 and those of us who chose to continue were driven to Checkpoint 1 after a more leisurely morning and were able to start running from there. From then on and for the remaining days, with the pressure off, I had an absolutely amazing time. I

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Photo by Steve

teamed up with three others in the same situation, Charlotte, Steve and Emily, three wonderful, interesting and inspiring people. Compared to those still in the competition we had an easy time of it. But don’t get me wrong – there is nothing easy about that route! The terrain is challenging, you need to keep your eye on the navigation and the days are long. However the surroundings are spectacular, the weather was miraculously good, the company was fantastic and the days passed quickly. Too quickly really!

 

In awe

Out of the 95 who started the Cape Wrath Ultra on Sunday 22nd of May there were only 59 IMG_0842 (2)who crossed the finish line at Cape Wrath on Sunday 29th of May having completed the entire race. And this was a lot more than the organizers had anticipated – something they put down to the miraculously good weather. Of the rest, 17 retired while 19 of us reached Cape Wrath but without having completed the whole route. I am in complete and utter awe of every single one of the 59 who completed the whole course! They have a determination and strength of will that is beyond comprehension. In fairness I can’t single anyone out, but I do have a particular place in my heart for my tent-mates Aly, Paula, Mirjam and Louise. It has been incredibly inspiring to witness at such close hand how those 4 wonderful ladies mustered the resolve and willpower each day to keep going despite the pain and the exhaustion – and still had the energy to laugh and have fun. Wow!

The best organized event ever

I have competed in more events than I can remember and I can, without doubt, say that this was the best organized event – by far – of all. And that is despite the fact that it was also the most complex event I have ever competed in – considering logistics, safety etc. Shane Ohly, Gary Tompsett and the entire event team did a truly amazing job. Despite working incredibly long hours they didn’t only ensure that we were all looked after but that we also had the best experience we possibly could – including those of us who were out of the competition. I thank every one of you!

Mission Accomplished

In the days that have gone since the event I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what happened, including the what ifs: particularly what if I had pushed harder through on Day 3? It always comes back to being happy that I dropped out of the competition that day. Even if I had completed day 3, I’m doubtful that I would have managed days 6 and 7. And the effort of trying to make the time checks would have been incredibly stressful. If I had, by some miracle, completed it would have been a feeling of accomplishment, but I don’t think I would be looking back on it as having been a good experience.

So I may not have completed the Cape Wrath Ultra, but I did achieve my goal! I felt bliss in the glens and mountains of the Scottish Highlands and had a wonderful experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Postscript

I did actually cover 271 km including more than 8800 m of ascent which is much, much more than I have ever done in 8 days before so am also a little bit proud of that!