Blogs & Musings

Cape Wrath BBC Blog from 2016

The most north westerly headland on mainland Britain, Cape Wrath, as the name suggests, is synonymous with fierce weather and angry seas. 

Its name, however, has little to do with the often harsh conditions which batter the towering sandstone and gneiss cliffs surrounding this remote point, and instead is derived from Old Norse meaning "turning point". 

Indeed, after eight consecutive days of running, walking, shuffling and hobbling a total of 249 miles (400km), climbing a combined elevation of 11,200m (36,745ft) - about the height of Mount Everest with Mount Fuji on top - this was now where we, the competitors in the inaugural Cape Wrath Expedition Ultra, would too turn and head homewards. 

From what could be gathered, most of us were bruised and blistered but buoyed by what had been a truly unique experience.

A host of Scandinavian athletes and entrants from as far afield as Australia, South Africa, Canada, the US made up an experienced field of competitors each with their own goal to achieve throughout the week. 

For my part, training for this event had been forcibly limited at best, but I hoped that a base level of fitness and the psychological experiences from my recent Antarctic trip would mean I could drag myself through most tricky situations. 

From the very start and after being bagpiped across Loch Linnhe at Fort William, the noise of rushing waterfalls replaced the sound of droning cars on main roads. 

The frequent and distinctive sound of cuckoos in the heathery valleys, meanwhile, soon became a constant and often handy reminder that for those outwith the realms of elite status, this was not a wander round the hills.

The clock was always ticking to make those checkpoints within the timeframe and the motto of the week very early on became "run when you can, not when you have to".

The variation in both landscape and terrain was immense and different to the unique beauty but simplicity of barren Antarctica. 

As we passed through wild glens, misty mountaintops, steep valleys and rocky passes, we witnessed historic ruins, restored bothies and meandering rivers. Memorably, we skirted one of the most dramatic waterfalls in the UK, the Falls of Glomach. 

We travelled across white sandy beaches, boulder fields, soft heather and bogs, which would be the bane for most of us. Knee high submersions were commonplace as we navigated through some of the world's most inspirational landscapes, including Morar, Knoydart, Kintail, Torridon - where my partner Hazel Clyne and I got engaged - Assynt and Sutherland.

The longest day - a grueling 42 mile (68km) stretch with over 2,400m (7,874ft) of ascent - and the same again in descent was one of the most memorable. 

A group of competitors of which my fiancee Hazel and I were part, conscious of the strict 23:00 cut-off time, tore down a stretch of steep hillside and then a forested area in the evening dusk. 

Reaching the finish line just in time for cut-off brought tears to the eyes of some who had made it. This was just one example throughout the week of camaraderie and teamwork in this, a supposed solo event.

As with Antarctica, the most difficult part of this nomadic lifestyle was taking the first, usually aching step out of the tent each morning, but unlike the unforgiving weather of the south, we awoke all but one morning to the sun lifting itself over the surrounding hills and burning off most of the remaining clouds. 

It is difficult to complain of having such nice weather and it's always a treat to be able to use sun cream in Scotland in May, but remaining hydrated on both adventures, however, became a consistent preoccupation, despite the temperature swing from coldest in Antarctica to warmest in Scotland around the 90 degrees Celsius mark. 

By the end of a warm week I felt I had an ear tuned to hear even the smallest trickle of a stream.

Due to the difficult days behind us and ahead, every night we had a camp "knees up", as competitors lay down, legs raised waiting for the fluid to often painfully drain from swollen feet. 

This, alongside blister and injury prevention was vital preparation for what was always a punishing day ahead. For those putting in the longest of shifts, the event became as much about body management as anything else.

The end of the day was where any similarities between the two trips ended.

The prospect of being cheered into camp, with my bag carried to a pre-erected tented before handed a plate of chips to devour, were the subjects of hallucinations during my Antarctic trip but this was now the reality each evening. 

This is the point, if reminder is needed, that the race would have happened without me but not without the volunteers. This smiling, organised and highly efficient band of enthusiasts were up before we woke at 05:00 and burned the midnight oil, well after the last of the snoring campers had tucked up into their sleeping bags.

As the days passed, cumulative fatigue began to set in. By the final day, Hazel and I, who ran every step together, had spent over 90 hours on our feet with little or no breaks throughout the day. 

As in Antarctica, this was certainly no sprint, not even a marathon. But we had made it. We had expected a challenging but ultimately rewarding week and in reality, the experience would surpass all expectations in every way. 

There were certainly times when we had leaned on each other - both metaphorically and physically - but I imagine this to be good preparation for married life.

Focusing on controlling what I could and overcoming small hurdles and challenges along the way, whilst always keeping the end goal in sight became paramount to the each psychological dip or tired moment. Dropping jelly beans when on the move, however, as it was in Antarctica, was still a frustration, no matter how much I tried to retain a bigger picture focus. 

It had been the huge ascents that had caused muscles to groan, but more critically the equal amount of descent that had caused the knee swelling, stress fractures and the blister-induced limping that caused a dropout rate of around 40%. 

Of the 95 competitors spread across 15 nations, only 59 received finisher medals. I was relieved, grateful and fortunate and I know Hazel was too - the temptation to return in two years time if we had not, would have been too great.

At Cape Wrath, John, who runs the cafe in in the old renovated lighthouse keeper's cottage, greeted us with a whisky. 

He recalled a time back in 2010, and as reported here by the BBC, when he and his wife were separated during the Christmas period. A winter storm meant she couldn't complete the 11 mile (17km) trip back to the lighthouse for 30 days. It's what you might expect from a location so remote that it is closer to the Arctic Circle than to London.

What's next?

The course record has now been set. Marcus Scotney - an immense athlete who like a grandmaster of chess seems to plan his next moves many skips and steps in advance of his competitors was the overall winner, 

The women's champion, Emanuella Marzotta, said: "This race is the hardest thing I've done, harder than the 10 day race in Australia or the Marathon Des Sables."

For Hazel and I, getting married is our next adventure, and we chatted about potential honeymoon plans throughout this event. 

Although nothing has been set in stone, we have decided a beach holiday probably just isn't for us. Not yet at least.