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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!






Tri and Di . . . . I mean “Du”!

I did a Duathlon on the weekend. But let me start at the beginning . . . . (this is another backlog post that will probably lead to a series of posts)

One of my very good friends (let’s call her TR) has always wanted to do a triathlon. She thinks triathletes are amazing and is completely in awe of what they do. She never imagined that she could do that too. She was not particularly sporty growing up and has had some injuries (from accidents) that make it difficult (and painful) to do a lot of exercise. Recently, however, she started going to the gym, doing spin classes and even, against all odds (due to back injuries), . . . running.

The idea started to form that maybe she could actually do a triathlon. This is the point that many people um and ahh and procrastinate and make up excuses for ever and never actually get around to doing one. My friend is a bit more determined and driven than this though, and she REALLY wanted to do one. There was still some convincing required though, and a suitable trigger to actually commit.

Enter another of my very good friends (let’s call her B). She has done many triathlons before but had her first baby in September and had targeted a triathlon in December as her comeback tri. Now, anybody who’s had a baby will agree that it’s pretty ambitious to attempt running, let alone a whole triathlon, less than 3 months after giving birth.

However, my friends are amazing. I have a lot of respect for elite triathletes, and ironmen (and women) and the people who go super fast around standard distance triathlon courses. I know how much training, dedication and pain goes into it. However I have just as much, if not more, respect for the people who aren’t at that level, and are possibly struggling even to complete the course on a mini-distance triathlon, yet still get out there and do it. Competing against yourself and the fear of failing is harder for most people than the elite competition against other athletes. It is so much easier to say “I can’t do it” . . . or as one of my friends disappointingly found “I could do that, but (insert 5 excuses here as to why they haven’t despite saying they want to)”. So many people let fear or general apathy stop them from doing things they want to. Luckily my friends are not like that!

So . . . a date was set!

I was along for the ride (no pun intended), and for moral support. I’ve done a couple of triathlons before, but only ever at the short distance as I am a terrible swimmer. My friends were such an inspiration (one doing her first ever tri to achieve a lifelong, seemingly unreachable goal, and the other completing a triathlon only 3 months after having a baby) that I felt like I needed to take on my own challenge to honour their efforts.

I entered the longer distance (“pursuit”) triathlon. The cycle (20km) and run (5km) were both fine for me. The swim (750m) was the big problem. I can swim to save my life, and I can swim quite a distance . . . using breaststroke. Breaststroke is not much good for triathlons as, besides being slower, it uses a lot of leg power, which leaves your legs tired for the cycle and run. My freestyle is terrible. Up until recently, I could barely do 50m of it. I have been gradually working on it over the last few years until I could do a few hundred metres non stop. That is still a long way from 750m though! Still, if my friends were taking this challenge on, unsure if they could complete it, . . . so would I!

I started swim training again, and that went quite well, with my first 750m non-stop test swim going quite well (even if I did feel like I was going to die for the middle 500m!). I also needed to do some bike and run training as I hadn’t done much of either recently. Sadly, right when I decided to start training I had a fatigue relapse (more on this later). It was hard to get myself out training at all and the training I did manage to do was nowhere near the target speeds I had chosen (30km/hr for the bike and 5:30min/km for the run). It was not looking good for race day. At least during my training I did finally claw back some competitive stubbornness (“NO I’m NOT going to give up!!”) rather than the fatigue survival tactic I’d fallen into over the last year (“Oh well, I’m tired and slow anyway”).

Having my friends doing it was a huge help. The training I did manage was mainly inspired by TR regularly sharing her training stories and results. We also had some fun preparing for the tri. We got to go road-bike shopping (yes, she had to buy and learn to ride a road bike to do this tri) and went tri-suit shopping. We ended up with matching ones, not because we tried to, but because they happened to be the only ones there that really fitted each of us. It led to much fun on race day though with matching outfits!



So, race day finally came around. We were nervous, but had done the training. Well, they had done the training and I had done the swim training and figured I could get through the other parts . . . it may just really really hurt! At least I seemed to be getting over my fatigue relapse.

The swim was brutal. Much worse than I ever thought possible. I had done so much practice, improved so much and had really felt like I’d be able to get through it competently. I completely underestimated the effect that being in the ocean, in a race, would have. I panicked on the word go, and couldn’t breathe properly. I tried to take a stroke and it was murky and dark. I was breathing so shallowly, panicking, that I couldn’t even hold my breath for long enough to take one proper stroke of freestyle. It was also rough. Not incredibly so, but enough that I was taking in mouthfuls of water and could never be sure where the surface would be. I almost turned around in the first 50m and swam back to shore. I’m not just saying that to be dramatic either. I actually considered it.

As it was, I managed to put into practice ONE thing that B had taught me while coaching my swimming: “If you get into trouble, just go into your survival stroke and keep afloat”. I switched to a combination of breaststroke and sidestroke and kept afloat. By this point (50m in) there were only two people behind me and the rest of the field was disappearing into the distance. But, I stayed afloat and slowly moving forward.

It took me 500m of bobbing along (I can’t even call it swimming) to finally calm down enough to do some freestyle. I managed it for a while, and even overtook some people, then freaked myself out again when I saw how far I had to go until the shore!

The only good things about the swim were that I got through it, and I resigned myself early on to being slow and conserved my energy so I was OK for the rest of the tri! My final time said 16 minutes which is pretty good for 750m but I think there must’ve been a mistake with the times, because there was no way I could’ve bobbed along that fast.

TR had asked me before the tri: “How do you find your bike after the swim”. My response: “It’s easy for me. It’s usually the only one left”. And so it was this time too. I had a reasonable transition (appreciating the tip from B to have a small bucket of water to wash the sand off my feet!) then got out on the bike leg.

During training I hadn’t been able to hold the speeds I thought I should, but somehow on race day it all just worked. It felt right and comfortable. I loved being on my bike. I was hitting speeds in the high 40s (km/hr) for the downhill bits and holding above 30 comfortably for most of it. I overtook heaps of people, and mainly only got overtaken by crazy fast people with super aero bikes and disc wheels!


Finishing the cycle, laughing because I’d almost fallen over in the sand and my friends (TR, B and their devoted husbands) were cheering me on!

I came off the bike still feeling strong (I’d made sure I hadn’t gone 100% and burnt myself out) and headed off on the run. I looked at my watch and it said I was running at 4:51min/km. What?!?!?! I can’t run that fast!! I thought it must be a glitch at the start of the timing. Nope, a few minutes later it still said that. Should I slow down? I was targeting 5:15min/km and didn’t want to burn myself out early. But I was still feeling comfortable, and strong enough that I could sustain this. I kept going, in my rhythm. After a few kms my watch still said 4:51/km. Nuh, it must be a glitch. The watch must’ve frozen up. Oh well, . . I’d just keep running at this rhythm. It was the best I could do anyway. A few minutes later my watch changed . . . . to 4:50/km. Whaaaaat?!?!?!?!! I really was going that fast! And I was almost half way and still feeling OK! What motivation to keep going! I’ve been trying to run sub 5min/km for years, and never managed it. Today, somehow, after a horrendous swim, 20km bike ride and limited training I finally did!

My results were middle of the field, like they normally are. But what was more important for me was that I achieved my two personal goals (the incredible run was a bonus):

  1. Complete the event in under 1hr 30min
  2. Look like I was enjoying myself the whole time
    (I may not have achieved this in the swim, but I don’t think that counts anyway!)


I enjoyed it. The swim was horrible. Almost traumatic. But the cycle and run were actually fun, and I kept my head up and positive and smiling. Doing it with two friends, who also achieved their goals, made it even better. They were such an inspiration to me, and to everybody else I’ve told about what they did.

Post race lunch was also amazing!


I know some of you love the food pictures . . . so this is for you! Steak sandwich, fries and cider at my local.

Oh, one more thing. Four days before this tri I had hurt my leg at Jiu Jitsu. I’d pulled or strained something in my calf just below my knee. I could barely walk and couldn’t fully bend or straighten my leg. Lots of ice and some anti-inflammatories and I was mostly OK but still not 100% (and a month later and it’s still not fixed). It hurt a few times during the tri, but held up surprisingly well. Thanks body. You are awesome.