"4 days 9 hours 43 minutes. It was awful, but it was amazing"
Beth is an ultra runner with a huge number of acheivements under her belt, including coming 4th at the infamous UTMB race in 2018. To top off her incredible year of racing, she and Damian Hall ran the Cape Wrath trail - 229 miles of unmarked rugged, remote Scottish terrain - to break the previous fastest known time (FKT) by 3 days! With it being the middle of December, they only had 6.5 hours daylight per day, and with it being a record attempt, sleep was at a minimum....
"Often when running I would quite suddenly become desperately sleepy so would drop to the floor (without even taking my pack off), sleep for 1-2 minutes, then get back up and run again"
Read on for the full details... and HUGE congrats to both Beth and Damian!
The Cape Wrath Trail in winter is arguably the most extreme trail running adventure to be had in Great Britain. That alone was a good enough reason to have a go at it, but it was also about doing something a bit different. The complexity and unpredictability of the challenge was something that I don’t experience in my usual ‘routine’ of ultra-trail races. What most people don’t know is that the Cape Wrath Trail isn’t actually a trail at all. It’s completely unmarked, and there are large sections of completely trackless, rugged terrain. We also didn’t know of anyone who had run the trail at this time of year, which added to the appeal (there was probably a good reason no one had!)
We weren’t moving so fast that we didn’t have time to take in the scenery. I loved seeing the landscape change as we travelled north. We spent all daylight hours marvelling at the spectacularly remote mountains and wildlife. On the other hand, it was dark for 18 hours of the day! Practically speaking it was easier to run the trail in winter as it’s away from peak racing season, plus time off work is precious hence the need to do it fast! Of course, Damian and I are competitive people, so regardless of the above we were always going to want the FKT.
Descending to Maol Bhuidhe Bothy on the morning of day 2 was particularly memorable. The night had gone on forever so it was a huge relief to have daylight and clear skies. The bothy is said to be the most remote in the UK, and it definitely felt it. The snow-dusted glen and glistening river made me forget how hard the previous night had been.
The section around the back of Ben Eighe in the Torriden area. We spent hours picking our way through deep heather and bog scattered with enormous boulders, on the steep side of the mountain. It was energy sapping terrain, but psychologically far more draining. We were moving at about 1 mph for what felt like an entire night.
There were certainly moments that were fun, but I can’t pretend to have enjoyed all of it. Most of all, I liked the simplicity of it. Just to eat, sleep (very occasionally) and run.
Each day was completely different. Sleep (if any!) happened in mountain bothies (basic huts) so when we stopped was largely determined by when we arrived at a bothy. We ran straight through the first night, and only stopped for between 3 and 5 hours on the other nights. I also supplemented the ‘proper’ sleeps with several trail-side micro naps; often when running I would quite suddenly become desperately sleepy so would drop to the floor (without even taking my pack off), sleep for 1-2 minutes, then get back up and run again. These were hugely refreshing! We avoided stopping during daylight hours as these were precious. We typically stopped once or twice during the day to boil water and eat.
About 6000kCal of the most energy dense food I could find! Freeze dried meals made up a big part of this. We carried a Jetboil stove for these. The rest was made up of chocolate, bars, crisps and other extremely healthy snacks. The amount of food we took had to be carefully balanced against how much the extra weight would slow us down. I was a bit hungry on the first couple of days.
We were self-supported, which meant we could pick up food along the way but had no support team. We therefore had to carry full gear for Scottish winter conditions, including warm layers, a sleeping bag, matt, stove, and A LOT of food. My Suunto 9 GPS watch with a battery life of 120 hours was a key piece of kit, as was my Petzl Nao headtorch (I barely took it off). Luxuries, like a spare pair of socks, were left at home.
About 6kg I think, depending on how many layers I was wearing at the time!
I knew I could run the distance on that terrain, and have experience of multi-day races in winter conditions. What we didn’t know was whether the weather gods were going to be on our side. River crossings were a very real risk. We had postponed the start by a day as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency website had informed us the River Ling had risen to nearly 2 metres (that’s well over my head!). Anything over a meter could easily knock us off our feet, which would almost certainly mean the end of the adventure, if not the end of us. We knew from the outset that if anything was going to stop us it would be in-passable rivers. An experienced fell-running friend had warned us not to go. We carried three GPS trackers between us, with SOS buttons to alert Mountain Rescue if things went pear-shaped.
It was convenient that our run was just before Christmas, providing a perfect time to catch up on calories and take it easy for a few weeks. I had a little tendonitis in my ankle which, also conveniently, forced some rest.
We are lucky in the UK to have may long-distance trails well suited for a multi-day running trip. Nationaltrail.co.uk or the Long Distance Walkers Association website are great resources. You don’t have to be particularly fit and go for records, so be sure to mix up the running with plenty of hiking. If you don’t want to carry too much gear then there are companies such as Contours trail Running Holidays that will book you accommodation and even transfer your luggage for you.
Every time I’m asked this question the answer changes slightly. The truth is I really don’t know. I love travelling, being in the mountains and exploring remote places. Running allows me to do this. However I find doing a hard interval session on the dark on the lane outside my house equally invigorating.
I enjoy the training, most of the time! Of course having a packed racing calendar is a strong motivator to train hard, but if I didn’t enjoy the process then it wouldn’t be sustainable.
My training varies hugely from week to week, depending on what shifts I’m working. It also looks completely different in mid-winter when there are no big races approaching, compared to the build-up to a big mountain ultra in the summer. For the latter I might do one, two or three back to back long runs, between 3 and 8 hours in length in the hills. There would probably be some sort of speed session, perhaps 4 x 12 minute hill reps or a moderate paced run on the flat. On the other days I’d just run easy, or cycle. I usually go to the gym twice a week for some strength & conditioning.
It’s actually quite rare to be perfectly matching someone in pace near the end of an ultra. I tend to break down the remaining distance into achievable milestones. I tell myself I can do anything for 10 minutes, or 20 minutes. I think experience also comes into play (and I am by no means an expert). It sounds a bit cliché but if you have been there before and experienced this type of discomfort at this stage in a race before, you’ll feel more comfortable with the pain and have the confidence to push harder.
The cold, which is ironic having chosen this Scottish winter adventure! I layer up excessively in the winter and only feel comfortable out running if I’m carrying at least two extra layers.
Long before I was a runner I wanted to cycle the ‘spine’ of the Americas, from Alaska to Ushuaia. I have done a few 4-digit mile bike rides. You can go fast enough to cover large distances, but slow enough to notice the finer details of where you are. I’d have to free up a year (at least!) of my life to do this, so it’s unlikely to happen any time soon!
Coming 4th at UTMB
My main racing goals are Western States 100 and UTMB (again). I’ll be doing quite a few UK-based races in the build-up, but really it’s all about these two.