Cape Wrath Challenge, Scotland



13th – 18th May 2013

A week’s running ‘holiday’ in the most north-westerly community in mainland Britain: 5 races over 6 days, starting with a half-marathon on the Monday and ending with a hilly off-road marathon on the Saturday with a hill run, cross-country and fancy-dress beach run thrown in for good measure. Sound like fun? Well for the mad or hardy (and we – my hubby, Crispin and I, were definitely the former) – it was amazing and we will definitely be back next year along with the other 30% of annual repeat runners.

This is a really special event organised by the tiny Durness community in North West Scotland which attracts about 250 runners over the week from both the UK and overseas (with a disproportionate number of Essex running clubs plus a couple of Hay Hotfooters!!). Runners are not just welcomed but engulfed by the hospitality of this little village that recognises what the event brings to the community. When you are not running, there are puffin walks, ghostly history tours, a quiz night, zumba session, Knex challenge, a BBQ and a spectacular Scottish Ceilidh to finish it off. Plus the most amazing organic chocolate, cake and coffee shop …

We got a very cheap EasyJet flight to Inverness from Bristol and then hired a car to drive the 2.5 hours up to Durness, staying in a B&B although a campsite, caravan, hostel or hotel were other options.

Following a briefing with wine and snacks in the village hall on the Sunday evening, with gale force winds and rain lashing outside, we organised ourselves for the first event:

Monday: Loch Eriboll Half Marathon (or a 10k alternative) . We were dropped somewhere at the end of Loch Eriboll, a large sea loch and ran back along the single track road to the village hall. I was imagining a reasonably flat course with a possible PB as I have been running well at this distance but of course, this is Scotland, nothing is flat! However, it was unbelievably scenic and despite the 45mph gusts of wind (behind us some of the way but directly in our face during the 3 mile climb up into the village at the end), the rain kindly held off for the only time that day and we ran in glorious sunshine. I managed 1:47:16 and Crispin was delighted to come in 1:58:02 for his first ever half marathon. The first runner home was 1:18:50 and first woman in 1:31:30.

Tuesday: Long Hill Run 5.5 miles (or 4 mile alternative):

With legs like leaden jelly I reluctantly turned down my kipper breakfast and dragged myself out of bed in driving rain to complete this one. After an initial 200m downhill blast on the road, we turned off on a gravel track and climbed up towards (but luckily not to the top of) a local peak, Beinn Ceannabeinne , winding through peat and heather moorland. Thankfully, just when I was contemplating another walk, we headed sharply down for a wade through a ‘bonny burn’ (supposedly this was a stepping stone crossing but with the rain the stones were a foot underwater!). The course then partially flattened out before a final steep scramble up to a limestone outcrop and then returned a quarter of a mile road section back up to the village hall.

Wednesday: 10 mile Around Durness run (or 6 mile alternative):

This was my favourite run. Both on and off road, it gave a real feel for the different terrain and scenery around the village. You would suddenly come around a corner or over the brow of a hill and be presented with the most gorgeous loch, or mountain or beach. The initial route followed part of the hill run before heading along the side of a rough stone wall negotiating large tussocks of grass and boggy ground. We then dipped down to the harbour (where the ferries leave for Cape Wrath) before heading back to the village through a long, undulating golf course, across the back of the sand dunes, through an orchard (about the only trees we saw during our stay), through the village square and then a final, steep half mile climb on the road up to the village hall. My legs felt easier today and I was pleased to pass a number of runners who had beaten me in the half marathon (they obviously don’t have Bircher Common to train on!)

Thursday: 3 mile fancy dress beach run

Pure fun, with the local school participating. We had come unprepared with costumes but others made up for us. The weather was gorgeous as we ran along one beach, across the sand dunes to the end of the next beach and back again. A few runners decided to go for a dip afterwards before realising that the Atlantic Ocean hasn’t warmed up much in May!

Unfortunately, we had to dash back to Herefordshire as I had to work on the Friday but most stayed for the highlight of the week on Saturday: the Cape Wrath Marathon. Everyone we met raved about this and said that although it was a challenge, it was the most memorable marathon they had ever completed. Looking at the elevation map, this is a tough off-road marathon (one of the climbs is over 2,400 feet). You run out and back in virtual wilderness on a very windy and exposed route to the Stevenson Lighthouse at Cape Wrath (the end of Britain – nothing between you and Canada/the Arctic). The race includes 2 short ferry crossings (for your legs to seize up during!). Understandably, places are limited, especially for the team events, because of the logistics of organising the transport for team members however, the temptation is too great and we will be booking our place as soon as entries open!

I can’t praise this event enough: the variety of the runs, the organisation, the friendliness of the community and the other participants was fantastic. If you can take a week off in May, take a punt with the weather and get a cheap flight/train to Inverness or somewhere within striking distance, I highly recommend it …

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