Dave Moir and Matt Walker
Dave: It was whilst out on a TBH organised trail run that Matt Walker first told me about a race he was doing this year. His explanation made it sound nearly (but not quite) impossible, and I was tempted to give it a go. Coming from the perspective of a Huw Jack Brassington philosophy, life very often sends Shetland ponies trotting passed you, some people just ignore them, whilst others prefer to jump on to see where it might take them. I decided to jump on, as I felt an opportunity like this was too good to miss.
Just to sum up, the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) is an 8-day multi-stage race through the highlands of Scotland covering about 250 miles or 400 kilometres for the many European athletes that were in attendance this year. That may sound like savage amusement to some, but as the race organiser stated, this is a true adventure race, the outcome for literally everyone is completely unknown and it passes through one of the last true wildernesses in Britain, with a lot of the route being completely unmanaged or affected by man. There are no guarantees for anyone to finish, a lot can and will happen over the 8 days, and it’s often the way people cope with unexpected things that happen to them, that gets them to the finish line.
Matt: For me this race started in early 2020 and it has been a long road. I entered the 2021 event and trained well but not well enough. I completed day four but was on the bus home the next morning with a very annoyed and overworked knee. I vowed to come back but wanted to recover fully physically and mentally from the effort so I volunteered at the 2022 edition of the CWU and used the event credit I earned for my entry this year. With what I learnt from 2021 & 2022 and the help of my coach I was feeling good this time around, but then again, I was feeling pretty good last time!
Dave: After many miles of trail running, largely in the Weetslade and Rising Sun country parks for me, with months of prep buying overpriced yet essential kit, it was time to head to Fort William for the start. I met Matt in Glasgow and thankfully he bagged 2 seats on the train to Fort William that was quite busy.
We registered and had our welcome meal taking note that club Roobarb, Fort William’s premier (and possibly only) night club was open for business in case we fancied a mad one the night before the big event, but we opted for an early night instead.
Matt: Something that I struggled with in 2021 was some pretty debilitating nerves. Thanks to the way the trains work out I had a little over a day to myself in Fort William having arrived on the Friday for registration Saturday afternoon, and the race start Sunday. All that time trying not to walk around wasting my legs meant lots of time contemplating the prospect of 400km of the Highlands finest. I can tell you, that sort of behaviour is bad for digestion. I was therefore glad this time to be sharing a room with Dave, he has a wonderfully calming effect and doesn’t snore! I even managed to eat some breakfast on Sunday morning.
Day 1 – 23 miles, 500m (ascent)
Dave: This was a very easy introduction to the event, being a relatively short leg of 22 miles with only 500 meters climbing. We were herded onto a fairly small ferry across the sea loch, and a piper led us to the start line.
A fairly undulating road section took us to a river that we followed up a valley over the main climb of the day. I spotted a Kingfisher on the river, tried point it out to the runners behind, but they didn’t see it and probably weren’t interested anyway.
Before the race, we met Matt’s Belgian friend, Taz and his parting advice was to not be beaten by any of the French runners. The Anglo-Belgian / French relations nearly took a turn for the worse when going up the first climb, as I was joined by a French runner who I had a bit of a chat with. We passed a couple of ladies who had been set off and in the earlier wave and were filling their bottles from a stream, when one of the let out a scream shouting “eugh a frog”. I was close to jumping to my new running buddies defence but luckily realised she had been surprised by an actual amphibian. My new running buddy pushed on on the descent finishing 5 minutes ahead of me, just hitting the time that meant he had to start late the following day, thankfully I was just outside it, but this fairly solid start did make me worried that I may have started too fast.
Matt: As Dave has said, day one is a gentle introduction. After the ferry which felt more like a troop lander crashed onto the stony beach we were piped ashore and marched to the Trislaig Village Hall for tea and biscuits ready for the off. The opening 11km road section tempts you to run but I managed to stick to my rule for the week without getting carried away; if it’s uphill, walk. We were soon heading up Cona Glen and the tarmac gave way to a nice estate track that climbed gently at first, then became a steep single track and out came the poles for the first time. The highest point was a mere 380m for this only significant climb of the day and the terrain not too technical over the top. A nice tasting menu for the week to come.
Unfortunately the bridge near the Glenfinnan monument is still out of action which means the route is cut short by a kilometre or so. But don’t worry, we made up the distance walking back two kilometres the way we had come to get to a waiting MPV to shuttle us victoriously to chips, soup, and a night under the viaduct. We also met the rest of our tent mates for the week. One, Michael, I knew well from being on the start/finish crew with the previous year. Another, Kevin, had also been on the crew the year before and being race number 118 had naturally ran the day in the wig and white vest.
Day 2 – 35miles, 1,800m
Dave: This started at the Harry Potter viaduct in Glenfinnan, and was our first introduction to midges. Even standing for a couple of minutes handing our dry bags in was awful. Thankfully we got set off quite quickly and they quickly dispersed. I had another good run over this longer section and was still worried I was going off too fast, but only time would tell. There was quite a bit of bog on this section and Matt decided to take a closer look (photos and details in Matt’s race report). At the end of one of these sections a marshal at a checkpoint asked how I was doing. My complaints about the bogs resulted in him advising me to leave a review on trip advisor. We heard cuckoos all day but weren’t lucky enough to see one.
There was a drinking water crisis in camp that evening. Thankfully the stream for washing in was unaffected but we had to wait a little while for tea and water to wash up with.
Matt: The route for day two is as tough as it is beautiful. Two years ago I struggled quite badly with my nutrition, the few days of not being able to eat enough thanks to nerves left me depleted and by the top of the first climb I was low on energy and my stomach wasn’t accepting anything. I didn’t want a repeat of that and had spent a lot of time working on my nutrition as part of my training. This time it went much better and I was actually able to enjoy the sweeping pine forest track after the first climb and the ancient woodland that followed, especially after reuniting with Taz within metres of where he found me, 2 years ago, pale and struggling. By the time we reached the beautiful pair of lachans at the top of the second bug climb the sun was well and truly out and I was glad I had put on sun cream as I passed a group basking outside Sourlies bothy. A stretch of saltmarsh followed and the group I had joined reached checkpoint two a full three hours clear of the cut off and moving well.
Somewhere in the run into the 3rd and largest climb of the day I stepped up into a logic defying bog come wormhole and my entire left leg disappeared into Scotland. Dragging myself out of this surprise spa I overbalanced slightly and pitched forwards down the slope, my right arm finding a similar, but more muddy hole, presumably in some misguided attempt to balance matters out. Thankfully the young lady further up the trail was out of earshot and not from the early 1900s or I might have needed to revive her with smelling salts after expressing my views on these sudden events.
The mud hardening to a nice crust on one arm and one leg, I trudged up the final big climb to worried looks from a few hikers going the other way, suddenly casting about for the pit I must have crawled through.
The final 10km, if it were possible to make the logistics work (boats would be involved), would make one of the most beautiful and challenging 10k races in the country. Not steep or high, but relentlessly undulating, rocky and muddy, flirting with the crystal clear waters of Loch Beag and at the end of, camp two!
Day 3 – the first real test – 42miles, 2,400m
Dave: This had the reputation of being the toughest day and I felt it was definitely harder than some of the longer ones. We did get quite high and although I heard Ptarmigan, I didn’t see any but other people did. It was a very long day and I was a bit demoralised dropping quite a few places despite running hard. I had a really sore big toe nail by the end of the day and kicking several large stones made it much worse.
I was able to report some very windy cold and foggy conditions to the marshal this time so made the obligatory trip advisor report.
There was a very pleasant river available for washing in this evening but to my horror I discovered 6 ticks on my legs. I asked the medics to take a look in case I missed any and I was there a long time whilst the additional passengers were removed.
Matt: They say if you get through day 3, then you have the fitness to get to the lighthouse, injury and admin permitting. Two years ago this was a 13 hour day and still the longest I have run in a race. With a 15 hour cut off, pacing was going to be key, not much time to hang about, but not a day to go too hard and blow up, especially on the long climb that starts almost straight out of camp and ends, almost six miles later, at the highest point of the entire race (on the shoulder of The Saddle at 720m). From the wilderness of Knoydart, through the beauty of Kintail the route took us to the Falls of Glomach, the most voluminous waterfall in the highlands, and into the wilds of Wester Ross (hopefully no dragons here). A day packed with miles and sights worth the work it takes to see them. I was through the first checkpoint only 45 minutes ahead of the guidance time, and by checkpoint two I was around two hours clear, comfortable, but close enough to worry about quite a few of those behind me. Passing the most remote bothy in the UK (Maol Bhuidhe, worth an image search) I saw a pair of worn boots and loved hiking poles standing on guard by the door, perhaps one day I will park my own there, but today there are chips at the finish and I doubt the bothy has so much as an air fryer.
The weather started to close in and the hood was up for the windy track alongside Loch Calavie through to checkpoint three, three hours in the pocket for cut off, next stop camp. Just the small matter of a negotiating my way between cliffs marked on the map with warnings in the thick cloud followed by the longest 5km I have run. When the cloud cleared I could see the camp, my watch telling me I still had to go three miles. With 2.8 I could hear the volunteers on the finish line cheering people in. It was somewhere on this final section that I really started to notice the niggle in my ankle. Still just a niggle, but a worrying one. I had finished the day feeling strong two years ago, and niggle free. 24 hours later I could barely walk. I parked the dark thoughts away and enjoyed the feeling of completing another successful day in the hills.
Day 4 – 22miles, 1,400m
Dave: This is considered to be a bit of a recovery day after the tough day 3. I felt pretty good despite the toe. The large climb was very wet and windy going up but the lack of path and crags made coming down from Torridon much harder. I pointed out some spotted orchid to the group I was with early on, but there was no interest so I just pushed on on my own.
I had planned a full set of clean running kit for day 5 which I was really looking forward to. I also lanced my toe with a scalpel which took all the pressure off it, and it felt much better. I had clawed some of the places back that I had lost the previous day so was feeling much happier about it all.
Matt: A rest day for the body, but a tough day between the ears. I was on high alert for the knee pain to come back, for the niggle in my ankle to announce its full rebirth as a proper injury. This was all useless worrying, and I tried to focus on the certainties. The weather clearing meant incredible views as we crossed Torridon and Coire Mhic Fhearchair (Don’t try and say it, just google it), and before that there was a beautiful flowing single track descent to enjoy into checkpoint 1. But no too much, enjoying this immensely could have been what set me up for trouble before. What follows the stunning corrie in the latter part of the day is around 5km of pathless heathery tussocks with hidden rocks and holes and this was knee breaking terrain. I knew all too well how it can transform a small niggle into a bus ticket home and I was not looking forward to it.
Climbing out of the other end of the glen, the sunlight flaring on the surrounding mountain peaks and shining on the brilliant white stone path, with a fully functioning pair of legs is one of the greatest feelings I have had running. I was going to be on the start line for day five. I had my own personal victory.
I was so happy, that after an amazing full body wash in the river and yet more chips, I celebrated with a nap in the tent while my fellow runners basked in the spring sunshine around camp. The midges got their revenge later though.
Day 5 – 27 miles, 1,400m
Dave: A bit of useless advice that was imparted early on was run on the bits you can, cry on the bits you can’t. Either way the general description of today’s route was that it was fairly runable. This turned out to be the case and I had another good day. It felt like a bonus easy day, but I was still mindful that we had the longest day coming up followed by another tough one, so I didn’t want to become complacent. There were quite a few Stone chat around the last few miles but before that we were treated to something that was marked as an “intricate” section on the map, which I now know translates to a twisty turney, rocky ankle breaking path that is no fun to run on.
Matt: Ok, so my legs weren’t perfect, but that’s to be expected after almost 200km, I taped up my left shin and popped a few pain killers and day 5 was underway. Another relative rest day and I was excited to see new ground which did not disappoint. Sections of the stage felt as remote as it is possible to be, especially when two red deer thundered across our path mere yards ahead of us. There was more pathless terrain though, and every step risked rolling my already swelling ankle and after a few miles I had my lowest point of the race as I watched everyone in sight seemingly disappear ahead of me while I battled the apparently benign heather. Eventually we reached another track and I found that running on firm ground was more comfortable and my mood lifted a little again with my pace. More incredible views of peaks begging to be climbed, especially as we got near An Teallach, and almost running out of water and I was in camp after another seven hour rest day, enjoying an ice cream and yes, more chips. Best of all, the breeze from the sea loch next to camp banished the hated midge.
Day 6 – The longest day – 45 miles, 1,400m
Dave: I had a bit of a mental block with this day as it was the longest one. There were long sections on feature less forest track that seemed to go on for ever. I heard the regular thud of Crossbills dropping pine cones, and there was further evidence of their presence with large areas of the path being covered with cones. I ran a lot of this day on my own, really struggling with heathery technical descents early on due to very swollen ankles and shins.
As Steve Birkinshaw said in his book, “no map in hell” Don’t mistake comfort for happiness. Sometimes you need to put yourself through a bit of being uncomfortable to appreciate what you have got.
Tea was a real bonus as it was pasties, mash, mushy peas and gravy. I was extolling the virtues of such a feast to one of the French guys, but he wasn’t impressed stating he didn’t like potato (I really don’t understand that) and was obviously a bit fed up with the food as all I got was a garlic shrug and a “phu”.
Matt: I was asked by Steve Ashworth, trail running photographer and event cameraman, after dropping my dry bag how far we were running that day, and honestly didn’t know the answer, even after carefully studying the map. Distance had ceased to be an important metric, trumped by how long I expected to be out, and therefore how much food I needed, and where I needed to fill my bottles to avoid the near miss of day five. What I did know was that this was the longest day of the week, and that day seven was likely to be day two with extra bog so there was still a need to stay under control.
Studying the map the evening before revealed a pathless section covering most of the second half of the 18km leg to checkpoint 1. I wasn’t looking forward to this after my low moment on day five but I had been sent a new technique for strapping my sore ankle by my coach which seemed to have helped. The rough ground turned out to be less so that other days and I felt like I was back in the cheviots, springing over soft ground as we descended into Glen Douchary. Much of the rest of the day felt even more like home, underfoot was almost identical to the shooting tracks I have been putting in the training miles on around the Allen Valleys and I couldn’t help but enjoy the good running.
When I arrived at checkpoint 2 before anyone else I decided it was probably time to reign things in a little, plus, I was once again getting low on water. CP2 was just after halfway for the day and the route was mostly uphill from there, which helped with checking my pace. Once again I managed to refill my bottles just before it became an actual problem, and by the time I crested the final big climb I had dropped to 7th on the trail. The race leader and a few of the top five having come through after a later start and two guys I had been running with earlier in the day. I knew the final stretch from a short run I squeezed in when I crewed in 2022, seeing the familiar beautiful sight of Inchnadamph Forest sent my spirits soaring as I flowed down into camp.
Day 7 – the sting in the tail – 38 miles, 1,600m
Dave: After a painful day 6 that I struggled with, I decided to mentally reset and run day 7 as best as I could bearing in mind another inspiring quote that “it only hurts until the pain stops”. I took as much Paracetamol as I could for the pain I was getting from the swollen ankles and shins as it was awful running downhill still. This was the only day we actually reached a summit, and it was a wet and windy day that got much worse on the higher ground which was also pathless to add to the fun. I was with Matt and a guy called Adam from Leeds for this section and we all got pretty cold. We talked about this in the evening and we all wanted to stop to put more layers on but no one wanted to be left to run it solo, so we just got on with it with none of us saying anything at the time. Lower down we had lost Adam and I sort of fell at the top of a peat hag sticking my pole through the top of it. I use Lekki poles which have a clip in glove system and I was literally trapped like the film 128 hours. Thankfully I didn’t need to chop my arm off as I managed to push myself back up slightly and unclip, and I’m way too tight to even consider snapping a pole.
I held up much better on this day and had a good run in on the last 5K road section spotting a Raven on the way in.
In the evening I had a visit from my friend Aileen and her family as their holiday home is literally on the CWU course and they popped into camp to see how I was getting on.
Matt: More K-tape on my leg and paracetamol with breakfast got me to the start line for the 7am start for only the second time the whole week and there was a good crowd of us ready to go. By this point the format was getting familiar. A long day with long climb quickly out of the gate. What was less familiar was the weather, cold to begin with after the warm sunshine of the previous few days and a threat of rain later. After the first yomp I caught back up to Dave coming down the other side and we ended up sticking together for a good few miles as we crossed a peninsular and rounded a loch. The track at the water’s edge would have made for cracking running without the gale force headwind, at least it was mostly on our backs for the ascent of our only peak of the week, Ben Dreavie, but it brought with it thick clouds and the promised icy rain. Without pausing for so much as a picture we cleared the pea soup on the summit and dropped into some warmth on the other side.
Dave and I enjoyed the sunshine on our backs down in the valley and skated our way through the mud along yet another beautiful loch. The trail became more runnable (a proper buzzword for the week) and I found myself enjoying it again, even if the road came 2km later than I thought it would. The final day is deliberately short and effectively makes the day seven finish line a ticket to Cape Wrath. Get here before the cut off and everyone agrees that nothing will stop you from seeing the lighthouse. I think that’s why I whooped with joy at the sight of the camp!
Dave: Last day and only 16 miles to the light house. My cumulative time was about an hour behind the person in front, but there were a couple behind who could have caught me so I was happy to go out hard, with Matt setting a good pace early on. Unfortunately, Matt’s early enthusiasm on a nice sandy descent took its toll on his shin and he dropped off the pace a little. I kept going with an American lad called John, and we both had a good run all the way to the lighthouse.
We were given some soup and tea at the lighthouse and put onto minibuses to take us to the very small ferry to Keoldale. Having heard them around us all week, I finally spotted a Cuckoo from the bus, which may sound bizarre but was one of my highlights of the week.
Matt: Well here it was, the victory lap to the north west tip of Scotland. I had paid no attention to my race position all week but suddenly I was interested. For the final day, in order to manage the volume of people arriving at, then needed to be bussed and ferried from, the remote lighthouse it is a waved start dictated by race position. I was in 30th position when I first checked the board, and if I dropped one more place it would mean a 15 minute delay starting and not going off in the same group as Dave. My luck held and at 7.15 sharp we were off. The atmosphere was certainly relaxed, but the pace wasn’t. Our little subgroup made a sharp start, and included our tent mate Kevin, back wearing the 118 costume with the large wig visible ahead on and off for a few hours. I really wanted to just enjoy the day, years of training and work had led to this day and I might have got a little carried away. We left the road and had six beautiful trail kilometres which I enjoyed too much.
As we got to the beach at Sandwood Bay my ankle pain hit its peak with half of the days distance still to go, mostly lumpy and pathless. I told Dave and John to go on without me and I hobbled my way over the line some 5 minutes after them. The lighthouse had gone down swinging a final few punches with a couple of cheeky climbs and the occasional bog, but nothing was keeping me from it now!
For a final treat, whilst I was having my soup and a can of Irn Bru in strode Taz. He had started in the wave behind and ran like a demon to catch us up. In 2021 we were both defeated at half way, now we celebrated together under the greatest finish line in the UK.
Dave: That evening we had veggie haggis and neaps before being shown a great film compiled by the media team of our week’s activities. The presentations were made by our race director Shane Ohly and there was a bar open for anyone who fancied a drink.
The following morning the piper was sent round the tents as an alarm call wake up at 7am, in particular for those who had fancied a drink the night before, but I was already up to say tearful farewells to the tea tent crew. We were then bussed back to Fort William for our homeward journeys.
Matt: As I killed time in 2021 before the race in Fort William I ambled into the high street whisky shop and bought a miniature to enjoy at the post race camp. The extra two years only made it taste better, even from a plastic cup. The atmosphere in the marquee was fantastic, a chance to share a drink with new friends, thank the volunteers on the crew and soak up one last evening in the Cape Wrath bubble before returning to the real world.
Dave: Unsurprisingly, this is a very tough race in what can be a harsh and unforgiving environment. There is a mandatory kit list, with some recommendations that may seem expensive, but you could be very grateful for the recommended item if you needed it in an emergency situation. Most importantly, you also need to remember to use it if you need it. Last year a participant was air lifted off the course with severe hypothermia, was in hospital for several days and the irony of this was all his warm gear was in his running backpack untouched.
You also need to expect hitting a bad patch and think how to get yourself out of it. It could even be a bad day, but the way you deal with it can make the difference between finishing or dropping out.
Expect to be injured and continue to run. I’m not suggesting you run on a broken leg but a sprain that may stop you training at home, can be taped, magic cream can be applied, paracetamol can be taken and my favourite strategy of ignoring it can be applied. One of the guys in our tent tore a calf muscle on day 1 and after mostly walking days 2 to 4 with the aid of K tape, he got going again and finished strong.
Definitely expect to lose toenails, and you won’t have beach ready feet for the summer. This is a given!!
The people who crew these events are very often past or future participants, and they really understand what you are going through. The tea tent crew (my dealers) were the best in camp. They even got some Yorkshire in for me (I prefer my tea to be grown in that area) from somewhere as the other stuff was a bit weak.
You are so well fed on these events and it’s all vegetarian with the option to make it vegan, so it was very easy for me. You got unlimited chips and soup as soon as you got in, with a good selection of cake or flapjack. Main meals were served from 6:00pm and you could keep going back repeatedly (which I did).
As Matt said to me earlier, the organisation is terrific but it’s the people that really make these events what they are. There is a real community spirit, everyone encourages everyone else, the front of the pack are as friendly and encouraging as everyone else.
Matt: Nutrition was a key thing for me. Almost every time I have raced for more than 3 hours I have had stomach issues that stop me from eating properly. Lots of experimentation in training and tune up races got me to my final strategy. I had a timer on my watch that alerted every 35 minutes; when the watch beeped, I ate. Food was mostly OTE gels with a few Cliff bloks, the occasional SiS gel and lots of sweets and home made trail mix. After a few days I found I would get hungry just before my watch beeped. I managed 63 hours of running without a single stomach issue, the big lesson here is to take the time to practise and hone your nutrition.
Footcare is probably the next most important thing to get right during the week. I heard plenty of complaints about blisters around camp and a serious set could easily have you hobbling to the bus. Dave and I were blister free for the entire race (although we both lost some superficial toenails), and I can’t speak for him, but I know my prep and maintenance was invaluable. Like the nutrition, I practised my foot care routine in my training runs and found a cream that worked for me. I ran in shoes that were broken in but not broken, and a fresh pair of socks each day. I knew how to deal with any blisters (See the book ‘Fix your Feet’ for good advice and some slightly graphic pictures of feet) should they come up. I had also been applying surgical spirit to my feet for a few months to toughen them up, this isn’t an approach that will work for everyone, and correct foot care is as individual as nutrition, again, practice and experiment until it works for you.
Finally, the biggest change I made was to take on a coach. Kate from YOP is also a physio and a strength coach. Since poor strength training was the root cause of my previous drop out it was the quality S&C that I feel made the real difference but having someone else setting my training sessions pushed me harder and kept me motivated through the long cycle.
Dave: Biggest thanks has to go to Matt Walker who has literally been by my side for the past fortnight. Matt’s knowledge and experience of the race was invaluable, making it much easier for me as a first timer.
Thanks to Emma for looking after things at home whilst I was away. Not an easy time with Jake in the middle of his GCSEs.
Lastly thanks for all the well wishes and Ultra mail, that really helped reading it every night, particularly when there was the only form of communication with the outside world in some of the camps.
Dave Moir 30-5-23
Matt: My biggest thanks goes to my amazingly supportive and understanding wife. There have been countless weekends taken up with long runs, too many evenings made longer fitting in hill sessions, and a frankly worrying amount of talk about kit choices and she not only put up with it, but helped, every step of the way.
Thanks of course also to my coach Kate who built my strength and my confidence and gave me the time to focus on putting in the work instead of overthinking my own plan.
Finally I want to thank Dave for going through this with me, helping to keep me level headed, and not snoring in the tent.
Matt Walker 02-6-23