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Cape Wrath Challenge


Once a year there is a marathon in Durness. Like everything in Durness, it is “the most north westerly” one of its kind on the British mainland. It is also remote, scenic and quite often wet and windy! The marathon is normally run from the Kyle of Durness out to Cape Wrath and back (11 miles each way), with a short break for the ferry trip over the Kyle then the remaining 4.2 miles back into the Village Hall. Going to the Cape is usually a tourist must-see as it is. Running out there as part of a marathon adds another element to it.

The last few miles into town coming up from the Kyle of Durness

The last few miles into town coming up from the Kyle of Durness (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

The Cape Wrath Marathon is not what makes the Challenge so special though. The Challenge is a week long series of running and social events. Those who take the time to come up for the entire week leave with dozens of new friends and feeling like they’ve become part of the village. Many people return year after year, reacquainting with friends they haven’t seen since the previous Challenge. Running events vary and cater for all abilities. The first day starts with a half-marathon or 10km option around Loch Eriboll, to the east. This is an incredibly scenic coastal road run, with some gentle undulations. . . or mountains, depending on where you’ve come from. This year the run was graced with beautiful warm, sunny weather. . . until the final 2km when the rain started and the temperature plummeted about 5 degrees, almost resulting in hypothermia for some competitors.

The start of one of the races (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

The start of one of the races (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

Tuesday is the hill run. A “5 to 6 mile” option, or a “about 4.5 mile” option. The distances had not been measured properly as a new course was used this year. The usual course was unavailable because there were eagles nesting nearby and 60 or so runners pounding past may have upset them. Because of this, the hill run was much less hilly than normal, but made up for it with a 40mph head wind, rocky, muddy trails and a section with no trail at all – just a hillside of boggy heather.

A muddy, but still

A muddy, but still “on-road” section of the hill run (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

Wednesday is considered one of the best runs to do. It is the “Around Town” run, consisting of a 10 mile or 6 mile version which wind their way around the outskirts of town before returning through the village centre to the Hall. It covers a variety of terrains – bitumen roads, rocky tracks and open fields – and explores the whole range of scenery – heather moors, grassy farmland, coastal and even a forest. “Forest” is stretching the term a little, and half the trees were knocked down in the winter storms, but for the time being, it remains the only decent sized stand of trees in the area. It was noted that the “Around Town” run was a lot hillier than the hill run, but at least the weather was improved to give the runners a pleasant experience.


A cheerful competitor waving to me on the Around Town run, past Durness’s small forest.

Thursday is probably the most visually impressive run, and is certainly the one with the highest number of entries. It is the beach run and is a social affair with many locals and children entering. It is also fancy dress so the stunning expanse of Balnakeil Beach takes a back seat to the incredible costumes that parade down it. Being a social run, the prizes are not for the fastest runners but the best costumes and the person who finishes closest to their pre-guessed time (no watches allowed on this one!). It was a lovely sunny day, although still quite cold. This didn’t dissuade people from taking a short swim after completing the run.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger finishing the beach run, followed by two penguins (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

Tonto and the Lone Ranger finishing the beach run, followed by two penguins (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

Friday is a rest day, before the marathon. Most people take the opportunity to explore the local area, walking the beaches, visiting the cave or driving to nearby towns. Some intrepid souls even use the rest day to climb some of the nearby hills! On Saturday, the Challenge community is swelled to more than double its numbers as the marathon runners flock to the village. After seeing the same faces for the entire week it is strange to suddenly have a lot of new faces. It really cements the bond between the week-long Challenge participants although the new runners are welcomed with just as much enthusiasm and camaraderie. Unfortunately this year the winds were too strong for the ferry to run so the marathon could not go ahead on the Cape itself. The alternate route follows the main road south towards Rhiconich. It is still very scenic, and still a marathon, but is not the same experience as running out to the Cape and back. One poor man had come all the way from Alaska for this event. Luckily he had thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the week’s running and it was simply suggested that he’d have to come back and try again next year! The run is so iconic that many competitors said that they wouldn’t bother visiting the Cape separately because they wanted to see it first as part of the Cape Wrath Marathon. There are 2 team options available in the marathon, to make it more accessible to less serious runners. 2-person teams can run 13.1 miles each, or there is a 3-person team option where two people run 11 miles each, with the third running 4.2. The strange combination of distances in the 3-person team is based on the ferry placement for the Cape run and, indeed, when run on the Cape the 2-person team has one person running 11 miles and the other running 15.2 miles. Everybody knew that if the marathon was not being run on the Cape this meant the weather was bad. It did not disappoint. 30 to 40 mph winds blew in off the Kyle, tiring everybody on the outward leg. The rain held off for the most part, with patches of blue sky and sunshine showing through. When it did rain, it made the most of it. Near horizontal driving rain, often solidifying into freezing shards of ice that pounded runners for minutes at a time sometimes leaving them cold and bruised. Some runners stopped and huddled for shelter, others ran faster to get through it, desperately trying to protect their faces from the ice. Several runners had to retire from the marathon after getting too cold and being unable to warm up. The bits in between the rain, which were the majority, were lovely though and the tail wind all the way home provided welcome assistance to weary legs.

Inclement weather for the marathon. Apparel ranged from full pants and jackets to mere shorts and singlets! (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

Inclement weather for the marathon. Apparel ranged from full pants and jackets to mere shorts and singlets! (courtesy Kevin Arrowsmith Photography)

The week is not just about the running. Each night has a social event – there is a quiz night, country dance practice, an electric vehicle construction competition and a BBQ. There is also lunch each day – an amazing spread of soups, sandwiches and cakes all prepared by local volunteers. The week culminates in the presentation dinner and ceilidh. The dinner is a sumptuous affair – local seafood, venison, smoked meats, salads and pies, again all prepared locally, topped off with a lavish selection of, again, homemade desserts. It is more than enough to make up for the morning’s efforts! After the dinner the tables are cleared and the dancing begins. It is said to be the best recovery strategy for tired legs, but has been known to cause more problems than the marathon itself! The Cape Wrath Challenge is organised entirely by volunteers and run predominantly by local people, although some people love the event so much that they’ll come up for the week and help out instead of running. The team do an incredible job – the event is professional and well organised, but retains a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere. The competitors and volunteers all have a great time and the atmosphere is so positive, it is an absolutely fantastic event to take part in. For more photos, see: http://cairnhousegallery.weebly.com/2015-cape-wrath-challenge-marathon.html http://cairnhousegallery.weebly.com/2015-hill-run-and-around-durness-run.html and for amazing costumes: http://cairnhousegallery.weebly.com/2015-john-walker-beach-run.html Also, for more information about the marathon: http://www.capewrathchallenge.co.uk/Home.html     On a more personal note, I was supposed to be away this week but luckily came back on the Monday afternoon, just in time for the quiz night. I didn’t know many people but was paired up with a local team (actually one of the organisers) and to our great surprise, we won! A fact which Kevin managed to mention in almost every official speech and his father in law told every single person at the Challenge at least once! He said to me “Did you hear? I won the quiz” so many times that I started saying it to everybody too! It was all in good humour, and I don’t think people were too annoyed with us at the end of the week. I took part in the long hill race on Tuesday morning (despite drinking too much and staying up until 4am at the quiz night) and thoroughly loved every minute of it. Well, almost every minute. I went reasonably fast (46:22 for 5.4 miles/8.7km, so 5:20/km) although I was a bit sneaky and ran behind someone all the way into the headwind so I was sheltered! Tuesday night I went to dance practice. Wednesday I marshalled along the edge of the forest and Thursday I ran in the beach run, although without a costume. Friday I went for a walk up Ceannabeinne (straight up the steep face at the front) with one of the other runners/volunteers who’s from nearby Tongue. I had said that if someone needed extra team members for the marathon I could fill in, and I received a call on Friday afternoon telling me that I was running Saturday morning. I was a little worried – I hadn’t been training and 11 miles was much further than I normally run. I needn’t have worried though. I had a great time. My legs felt good, and I was absolutely loving running out here, in what I consider to be my land. I ran behind other people for some of the way out, sheltering from the wind but after that ran in front quite happily. Even when the hail hit, I spent half the time laughing – it was like “my land” was testing me to see if I really was worthy of it! The other half of the time was spent saying “ouch ouch ouch ouch” and desperately looking for shelter! I caught up to someone who was running a similar pace to me and we ran together for about 2/3 of the race, even doing a bit of a sprint for the last bit to keep in front of someone who was catching us. The final water stop had optional whisky shots (Tomatin apparently) so we had one of those too. It didn’t seem like I’d get the full genuine Cape Wrath marathon experience without taking it! My 11 mile time was 1:39:44 (17.7km, so 5:38/km) which I was very happy with. This was probably the most enjoyable run I’ve done . . . and definitely the most enjoyable race! The dinner was amazing. I ate way too much, which at least meant I couldn’t fit in enough to drink too much as well. I think I danced every single dance, as every time I went to sit down somebody would ask if I wanted to dance. I couldn’t say no! By this point I knew so many of the runners that I had heaps of people to talk to and lots of things to talk about. This week was fantastic for me. Not only did I have a great time at the running and social events, and get to meet lots of great people, it was also a big step in getting me involved with the community. I met a lot of the locals, and more importantly, they met me and got to see that I was here and happy to help out with things. I really, really enjoyed this whole week!







  1. Jackie says:

    After reading your previous post, it’s clear you had to get back for this exciting event. Pleased you didn’t miss it and had such a good time.

  2. anna says:

    Finally a night where I’m not asleep on the couch at 7.30pm! Lol. Good chance for me to catch up on reading your blog. This event sounded fun, and great to be part of the community! Good stuff mate! X

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